Being a ‘Deletist’ Might Be the Only Way to Protect Your Data
Lucie Greene opens her book, Silicon States, with a scene from an annual tech conference, the 2014 Web Summit in Dublin. During an otherwise banal meeting, American venture capitalist Peter Thiel’s comments caught people’s attention. When asked whether technologists have the right to determine how the world changes, Thiel asked what gives other people the right to stop technology from evolving. “We’re living in a world in which there are enormous problems, where there are many things that are incredibly screwed up. And so, I think it is imperative on us to try to fix these problems as quickly as possible,” he said. “And sometimes that means not asking for permission — but really asking for forgiveness later.”
This drive for progress, though, means that individuals’ concerns are waylaid, while these companies improve their bottom line. In the years since the conference, our private worlds have become inextricably linked with these companies. They know where we live, who we call, what angle we hold our phones at, and what we Google at four in the morning. And they are making a whole lot of money off of all this information, which we give away willingly — because who is actually reading privacy policies before accepting the terms and conditions? But users are pushing back against these companies, trying to take back control of their data, or even, delete it altogether.
The 2018 Facebook data breach brought this to the forefront, when 89 million accounts were harvested by the political consultancy group Cambridge Analytica for its own commercial use in shaping political campaigns in the U.S., U.K., and other countries. The group’s ties to Thiel’s data analysis company, Palantir, which is contracted by the Pentagon and police services in the U.S., also brought to light the sinister ways user data can be shared, sold, and used against us.
The investigation and public outrage that followed saw a lot of people sharing the hashtag #DeleteFacebook, which forever changed the way the brand is viewed. However, it’s difficult to tell what the real impact has been; Facebook’s other services like WhatsApp and Instagram remained unaffected, and Zuckerberg refused to personally appear for the British authorities’ investigation, in “a stunning display of Big Tech bravado (or more frighteningly, Zuckerberg’s untouchability),” Greene posits in her book. This breach is simply the tip of the iceberg. Big data is the way of the future for most companies, and unless there’s a global push for users to delete their details from these companies, nothing can stop them.
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There are, however, trailblazers who are pushing to decentralize the internet, or, at the very least, make users aware of what information they are sharing — and how to delete it. Charles Reynolds-Talbot is one of these people, whose concern about privacy led him to create a website aimed at giving advice and step-by-step instructions to help people reduce their digital-data footprint. A self-identified ‘deletist,’ he defines this as “a person who deletes their data in a quest for anonymity, privacy and safety online: paving the way for ethical decentralized systems.”
#BeADeletist offers ‘How To’ guides to find out just how much data companies have on you, and how to delete it permanently from Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. Even if you don’t want to delete your account permanently, there are instructions on how to keep your data safe while using these platforms.
The site also warns against WhatsApp, where end-to-end encryption means that the content of your messages is safe, but the metadata — i.e. details like when and where you use the app, who you send messages to, and the type of message (text, image, video, GIF) — can all be tracked and sold to third party companies. The website offers more secure alternatives to WhatsApp, like messaging platforms such as Telegram and Signal. And to avoid having your data stored by the likes of Google, the site suggests using search platforms like DuckDuckGo to search the internet.
As CEOs at tech conferences, just like the one Greene attended, uphold the mantra that ‘Data is the new oil,’ with companies now collecting and profiting from the most extensive data sets on people and their behavior that the world has ever seen, our privacy has become collateral damage. Short of deleting all our data at an unprecedented scale, there’s nothing much we can do to stop this. In the meantime, #BeADeletist offers a way to be secure on the internet, as well as encouragement to take that final step and delete your data to keep yourself safe.