Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Regardless of what gets revealed about the surveillance that takes place though our technological devices, the fact remains that most people (the vast [vast!]) majority are not going to actually renounce these devices and the services they bring. Indeed, we are living in a technological society, and to participate in it, seems to mean using (and being used by) technology. Avoidance and renunciation will win over few adherents, but there is a general sense that alternatives are needed to the dominant systems and services.
The hardware problem remains particularly difficult as most computers, tablets, and smart phones are manufactured by major companies – though devices like the FairPhone may aim to challenge the near monopolies in this field. Yet it is in software, apps, and services that people have a better chance of finding some alternatives to their standard (much loved by surveillance state) programs. Though there are quite a range of alternative services to consider, one of the largest problems has been the lack of decent alternatives for e-mail. And this is what Mailpile aims to do, as its website claims it is:
“A modern, fast web-mail client with user-friendly encryption and privacy features. 100% Free and Open Source software.”
Granted, it would probably be more accurate to say that Mailpile hopes to be all of the things listed above as it is still in development. What will make Mailpile different is its higher emphasis on the user’s privacy, instead of on the parent company’s ability to sell ad space next to your e-mails. Beyond having no ads, Mailpile also emphasizes privacy and encryption, and is a self hosted system (meaning it isn’t living on a Google or Amazon server somewhere). Self hosting will bring with it some challenges certainly (though you can host it on a USB stick) in particular as it may mean that Mailpile will not be immediately available for easy use on smart phones; however, if privacy is genuinely important it may need to be prioritized over convenience. After all, much of the current privacy mess we’ve found ourselves in has been a result of a panoptic con where we traded privacy for convenience (without realizing just how much we were giving up).
Yet for Mailpile to become a reality it needs money. A modest amount of money by the standard of what they’re trying to do…but it’s still a significant sum. Thus Mailpile has launched a campaign on Indiegogo to raise $100,000 by September 10 in order to fund the project. As of this writing they still have less than half the money they need. The pitch for funds is interesting in that it puts the current wave of worries about privacy at the forefront:
“Edward Snowden’s recent leaks were a wake-up call, confirming what many had long suspected, that the troves of e-mail stored on our behalf by Google, Microsoft and others are irresistable targets for those who would like to invade our privacy, be they criminals or overzealous government organizations like the NSA.
These companies base their businesses on controlling our data and communications and are never going to do the one thing that would protect our mail from the snoops: encrypt it. So, if we want to take control of our e-mail, if we want privacy and encryption, we have to do it ourselves.”
It’s an interesting pitch and one that names the problem with refreshing honesty, particularly as it puts the onus on those who care about privacy to take serious steps towards – for lack of a better way of putting it – funding privacy. Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo mail, are not really free, even if you do not need to make a payment with a credit card; the cost is your information, the data your interactions generate, and your privacy. Mailpile does hope that supporters will renew their support as time goes on, though it is also probably the case that a wider group will emerge to support the service once it becomes a reality. But to restate it: if you want privacy, it seems you have to be willing to fund it.
While it is a challenge to put a monetary amount on some of those items, it should at least raise the question as to how much you’re willing to pay to protect your privacy? One dollar? Well, you can donate at that level if you like – and for those who love Bitcoins, they accept those as well. Clearly the (at this time small) team behind Mailpile has high aspirations for their project and see in it potential to really make a difference, as they note (in the indiegogo pitch):
“if successful, we hope to accomplish something far more important: strike a blow for privacy on-line.
By making secure communication understandable and less prone to human error, we hope to improve the security of human rights activists, journalists and whistleblowers the world over and do our part to make the world a better place.
Finally, even if only a fraction of the general public switch away from the proprietary web-mail providers, the mere possibility will put pressure on these big corporations to take more care and respect the privacy of their users. Competition is good for everyone.”
Those are admirable goals (and I look forward to being able to switch my e-mail over to Mailpile) and if they sound slightly naïve in their optimism some of this can surely be accounted for by the fact that this is a pitch for funds. Yet, it remains worth noting that while Mailpile may “strike a blow for privacy on-line” and while it may help “human rights activists, journalists and whistleblowers” the idea that some people switching to Mailpile will force “big corporations to take more care and respect the privacy of their users” seems like the only really far fetched element of the Mailpile plan.
The problem that emerges – a problem which is hardly exclusive to Mailpile – is the danger that such services will not do anything to actually challenge the big corporations, they will simply provide cover for the larger systematic abuses by allowing those concerned to switch to different services while stranding the majority. Services like Mailpile do not force corporations to rethink their privacy ethos, rather it provides those corporations with a convenient cover, allowing them to say: “don’t like what we do with your information? Fine, go to Mailpile, but you’ve got to pay for that, and good luck figuring out the self hosting thing!”
This is not meant to undercut what Mailpile is doing, but it is important to remember that spaces for resistance and criticism (such as Mailpile) may act to redirect anger away from structural critique and towards personal consumer options – unless such shifts are paired with a systematic critique. Despite all of the criticism that can (and should) be directed at the surveillance abuses of late, the fact remains that those committing these abuses were simply taking advantage of the new opportunities that modern technology supplied for them. Furthermore, by making privacy something that is no longer assumed, and making it something that is no longer claimed as a basic right, we emerge into a situation where privacy becomes something which is only available to those who can pay for it (as Marcuse once predicted privacy would become). Or, to frame these new services in the words from Lewis Mumford (from In the Name of Sanity) that are worth memorizing these days:
“Let no one imagine that there is a mechanical cure for this mechanical disease.” (Mumford, 50)
Those who care about privacy and the idea of an “open Internet” have an obligation to match their rhetoric with action, and supporting projects like Mailpile is important for those reasons. Nevertheless, from Mailpile to Tor to the Fairphone, all of these technological solutions bind us to the technological systems from which many of our current problems arise. Unless a nuanced and ongoing critique of technological society can be advanced and spread we will inevitably find ourselves back here again, pondering what “safe” service will provide us the privacy we desire and how much we can afford to contribute towards those goals.
Or, to rephrase Mumford: If we want to battle this infection we need to focus on fighting the disease instead of the symptoms. Taking a pain killer will only do so much when you’ve got the plague.
Mumford, Lewis. In the Name of Sanity. Harcourt, 1954.