Toxicity and Fanboyism in the Privacy Community

I wrote this piece as a response to (and general agreement with) The Real Privacy Enemy is Ourselves by Henry from Techlore, which is a very interesting read. I do work on the Techlore YouTube channel and online community myself.

Toxicity and fanboyism is a big problem in many niche online subcultures (Linux community, Android vs iOS, etc.), but it’s especially hard to keep seeing it crop up again and again in the privacy community — such an important topic we’re very involved with on a daily basis.

What I’ve noticed is that some people tend to have a problem with plurality. It can be a difficult concept to wrap your head around, that just because x is true doesn’t mean that y can’t be. We see this in politics for example, the exclamation that someone is wrong or “un-American” because they vote Democrat, or Republican, or they’re black, or gay, or what have you. This absurd line of thinking is what makes the masses disinterested in a problem and preserves the status quo, because people simply don’t like drama.

Privacy could be — should be! — a uniting banner for everyone from Facebook users to journalists to basement QubesOS enthusiasts to fall under, but certain people and groups would rather turn it into a line in the sand: either “you’re private” or “you’re not”. The fact is that privacy is something you deserve regardless of the choices you make, it should be the default. Alienating users based on their choices rather than uniting against the invasive corporations that promoted surveillance capitalism in the first place isn’t going to accomplish anything, so why do we keep doing it?

The answer to “how do I become private?” isn’t “just do x, y, and z,” it depends on what you really want to accomplish.

I’m passionate about a lot of the privacy tools I use on a daily basis, fantastic resources like Matrix, Signal, and Firefox for example. But I can also see the other side. Some people require even more advanced anonymity and specialized tools, while others still simply can’t avoid things like social media or unencrypted chat apps. They all have their reasons, and that’s okay. Being able to see the strengths and weaknesses of any position should be the marker of those who claim to be an expert in this space, but time and time again people choose to focus only on the strengths of themselves and the weaknesses of others.

Anyone who purports to have all the privacy and security answers is mistaken, and they’ll lead you astray. The answer to “how do I become private?” isn’t “just do x, y, and z,” it depends on what you really want to accomplish. The privacy journey is not a straight road to head down, it’s personalized for you and you alone. Excluding others because their journey is not identical to yours is foolish.

Ultimately, fanboyism is present in pretty much all hobbies/cultures/groups and there’s no reason to expect the privacy community would be any different. There will always be people annoyingly entrenched in their ways without the knowledge, discussions, or evidence to back themselves up, and that’s just something we will have to deal with and disregard as it comes up. These vocal minorities can’t dictate our involvement and how we do things.

That being said, it can still absolutely be a goal of the privacy and security community in general to lower the volume of these “debates” and work towards fostering a more inclusive atmosphere. We’re not there yet. If anything the volume of these shouting matches has only increased in the first few years. Recognizing that and actively starting constructive conversations in their place will be the first step towards bettering this problem.

I’m glad to be working with Henry and Techlore, one of the few privacy advocates that I feel fights back against this line of thinking, doesn’t seek to exclude people who aren’t deemed good enough, and doesn’t pit its community against the non-private “others” out there. Openness, empathy, and education are the ways we will continue to push privacy ideals forward.