Nowadays we use our computers to store all manner of sensitive information. From our Banking to what we read, write and consume. This is information by its nature is typically considered private. Computers via their convenience have combined many devices into a single system. This has the roll on that there is now a central control point for which a lot of sensitive data can be collected.
Computers only do what the software instructs them to do. Those that make the instructions are the ones that have the real power. If you are using proprietary software then you do not have any control whatsoever. When it comes to privacy, those in power are the ones that dictate what they see as private and important.
A good example is the Android mobile operating system. It comes with a bundle of proprietary applications that track almost everything you do on your phone. Google knows what your location is, who you talk too, where you travel, what you look at on the internet along with all your media consumption habits. Google/Android is not alone in this, both Apple iOS/MacOS and Microsoft Windows platforms all do the same thing.
Data is key to their business models regardless of the ethics. Even if we did away with these current players, merely having a proprietary system would mean the temptation of developer to put in this tracking for the sake of profit. It is not unreasonable to assume that if a program is non-free, it is mistreating your data as well. Even if they are saying that it is kept private and safe, there is no direct way to verify their claims. Supposed that it is a true statement now that does not mean this information will be safe in future. Even the most obscure systems can eventually be broken into.
If the system is non-free it can be very difficult for even expert professional to really know what is going on in a program. For every instance of data being send-off site that we do catch, many more get through the cracks due to the obscure nature of non-free programs. Some big data leaks in recent years have been from programs that appear to be benign; programs that appear to be doing one thing such as editing a text file but in the background are reporting other more sensitive information back to the developers.
This kind of information processing has a few key issues.
Even if you feel it is harmless information, most people want to remain in control of how it is used. What may feel like harmless information can be used and colluded with other information to make it very dangerous to individuals and eventually society itself. Lack of privacy at first is vague and then becomes dangerous.
Those that makes these non-free programs have self-elected that they have the right to your information and will be misleading to get it. Any self-respecting person should not tolerate this kind of power play merely for the sake of convenience.
On a personal level, you can have all your contacts, messages, pictures, listening/viewing habits, locations and passwords taken. Anything you do on or even near a computer nowadays is viable for exploitation. On a business level it can mean financial data, product development, accounting information, employee information etc. all have the possibility of being taken without your knowledge.
This data relates to individuals and the groups they are a part of and it could be used against them in future. For most people it is like to be used to limit your options to do things in future. Hypothetically – if your lifestyle habits are estimated based on your location data, there is a chance that you will be denied or have to pay more based on information you didn’t actively give to them. Data collection only has one goal and that is to target you specifically. Directly this can be used for black mail, particularly of journalists. This prevents things such as whistle-blowing which is vital to keep a growing society.
On a social level – even knowing that you are being watched is enough to change people’s behaviours, this is known as ‘Social cooling’. It is where people self-censor because they feel they could be watched at any moment. This has the roll on effect of limiting speech and the free spread of ideas – and with it the end of a dynamic and just society. Even if your information isn’t directly used against you, it limits the entirely of society just knowing it is being watched. We should not stand for this.
This does not just apply to computer software but to online services too. Google for instant uses your searches to profile you; Facebook does the same with all your pictures and friendships. Both of these services are merely giant data collection machines. You are the product. Both of these companies as examples use proprietary non-free programs as well to increase their data collection. It is wise to avoid such dis-services where possible.
With free software, the user has the final say of what runs on their machines. With a community of programmers constantly checking in the clear what software is doing, they can verify if a program is treating people well. If a program is discovered to be mistreating the users then it is possible to remove the malware and share the changes to everyone.
With the developers aware that their code will be inspected and the users are free to change anything, there is much less incentive to put this functionality in the software. It firmly keeps the power in the hands of the people who actually use the software.
This means that if a program is seen to be sending user information to a 3rd party that can be removed and reported immediately. If you use only free software then you are more likely to be protected from these issues, with proprietary you have no control as the developers will only tend to what benefits themselves only.
If you want to keep your privacy and your freedom then using Free software is your best chance on achieving this.