How I’ve Convinced People Around Me to Care About Privacy
As many of my long-time readers know, I love to write about personal experiences as a way to give real-world context to many of the subjects I cover. This week, I want to talk about my successes in getting the people around me to care about privacy. In the past I’ve mentioned how one of the recurring questions I see in the privacy community is “how do I get my friends/family/significant other/etc to care about privacy?” My partner has gone from publicly posting everything online to using encrypted messengers, using a VPN on all her devices, almost completely eliminating Facebook (she still needs it to connect with one specific group), and slowly transitioning to ProtonMail. Just this week alone, both of my coworkers stated their intentions to start taking their privacy more seriously after Chrome’s move to give advertisers full access to your device files. And in a move I never thought I’d see, my own brother said he wants to move away from using GAFAM (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft) products so heavily. I doubt I’ll see him completely abandon said products, but he did ask me if ProtonMail has a free tier and said he was switching to DuckDuckGo and Firefox. So this week, I want to take a moment to report what I think worked on all of these success stories.
Disclaimer: Before I dive in, I want to say that you should never do anything expecting to change someone’s mind. That’s just asking for disappointment and hurt feelings. You should enter into these discussions with the mindset that you’re here to exchange and consider ideas and viewpoints. If you approach subjects attempting to change someone’s mind, they’ll often feel attacked, get defensive, and double down. But if you go into it going “we’re equals, whatever you believe is up to you, but here’s what I believe and why” they’re much more open to listen to you and what you have to say. That’s not guaranteeing success, but it does guarantee a much better time in my experience.
On that note, I respect people’s choices even if I disagree with them. I really got on my brother’s case. He claims to be an ally of minorities, the oppressed, and other such groups. So, I made it no secret that he was perpetuating that same oppression by using services like Amazon, Facebook, and Google. It’s not enough to vote Democrat when you’re perpetuating systems that allow right wing extremism to flourish and shopping at companies that oppress their workers. That’s an argument for another day that I’m currently working on, but the point is that while I made these opinions known to my brother I was always quick to follow it up with “I love you, you do what you want, these are just my views.” Same thing with my partner. I have never forced her to use a password manager, I simply presented her with password managers as a tool of convenience and security, explaining what they do and how they can improve your life, and left it up to her. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a lot of things I wish the people around me would do differently. I wish my partner would stop using TikTok. I wish my mom would switch to Linux (there's nothing she does on Windows that Linux can't do). But I respect that everybody is at a different place and I can’t force them to do anything. I can only present them with the facts and let them make that decision (it’s almost like I made an entire website out of that philosophy).
Time: Mere Exposure
I think most often when people ask that question, what they’re asking for is the epiphany moment. Chances are that very few of us reading this were introduced to the concept of privacy the same day we started taking it seriously. Think hard. I know I can vaguely remember some conversations I had with a friend about how the founding fathers never could’ve successfully revolted if they were subjected to the same level of surveillance in 1775 that we are today. I also did some time in the military, meaning that I was very familiar with the concept of having my communications monitored at some level. The point is, privacy was not a new concept to me. I heard at least a few arguments about why it matters and as an avid sci-fi fan, I was well aware of some of the potential negative ramifications of not having it.
It can be frustrating repeating yourself over and over as it falls on deaf ears. I live with my partner, and therefore she hears me rant about privacy constantly. As she’s begun to care more in recent months, we frequently have conversations where I rant about something privacy-related that upsets me, she says she didn't know that, and I remind her that I've definitely mentioned this before. I don’t rant with the expectation of changing my partner’s mind, I just rant to get it off my chest and I’ve made that very clear to her. But it’s still frustrating to know that most of it doesn’t stick. I think that’s why most people ask the question. “How can I trigger that ‘a-ha!’ moment that finally makes my family care?” And the fact is you can’t. It’s impossible to tell.
So instead of viewing these discussion as “this might be the moment,” view them as just general discussion like I mentioned at the top. If I’m talking to someone who complains about passwords, I throw out password managers. Just the other day someone on a job site mentioned that they do a lot of online shopping, so I encouraged them to check out Privacy.com. The goal is to expose them to it repeatedly. It’s called “The Mere Exposure Effect.” Basically the idea is that just by being exposed to something, your opinions on it strengthen. If there’s someone you sort of like, working around them frequently will make them like you more. The idea is to expose them to the ideas of privacy more and more so it grows on them. I know it sounds kind of manipulative, but that’s not my intention. That’s just a fact. The fact is that Mere Exposure can go the other way: working around someone you sort of dislike can make you grow to hate them, so if someone is clearly pushing back on privacy stuff and gets vocally upset by it, drop it. You’re not gonna win them over with Stockholm Syndrome. You’re going to push them away.
Time: The Epiphany
You know what made my brother care? The same argument I’ve made a hundred times before. Maybe I worded it a little differently but there was nothing new in my argument. No new concepts, no new information. It was just timing. This happened to be the time that my brother was in the right headspace, the right frame of mind, with the right set of pressures, information, and circumstances to decide “you know what? Nate’s right. I can’t be part of this system anymore.” I mentioned before in a different blog that my partner made the full-time jump to Signal after her boss informed her that the company reads text messages. When she told me this, we had another “I told you this a long time ago” conversation which actually ended with her going “yeah but somehow it felt different being told by the company themselves.”
The fact is you can’t predict what’s going to finally get through to someone. There’s no use in trying to guess what that magic epiphany will be. When I told my coworkers about the new Chrome “feature,” I actually made a point of saying “I don’t even care about the privacy aspect, this is a serious security risk.” I then explained drive-by malvertising. The next day, one coworker mentioned his plans to switch to ProtonMail this weekend and the other said he had removed as many Google apps off his phone as he could (he still kept Drive and Gmail for work stuff, but he removed other stuff like Maps). I would’ve never guessed that would be the story that would’ve got through to them, although honestly it probably wasn’t.
Honestly, most epiphany moments are straws that break the camel’s back. I don’t know if my own was or what. But in all my time of winning people over, it usually comes down to them hearing enough stories (usually from me, guilty as charged) that they finally go “I’m over this, I’m willing to make some changes.” This could be another blog topic in itself but when you get that win, be sure not to push it too hard. I've learned that when somebody tells me they want to start taking their privacy more seriously, the best response is to go “I'm happy to hear that. Let me know if I can help.” (That's actually when my brother asked if Proton had a free tier.) Don't get excited and go “ohmygosh! Now you have to check out Wire and Mullvad and XMPP and this and that and switch to Linux and...” Just let them know you support them and you're happy to share whatever you know.
I want to reiterate that you should never go into this expecting people to change. Also, it’s healthy to have other topics. While I frequently return to the topic of surveillance and privacy, I’m also capable of talking about music, video games, movies, TV shows, politics, and sharing personal stories of my time living in various other places. It’s not like all I can talk about is surveillance. Basic people skills come into play here. The best way to get the people around you to care is to not force it on them and let them come to their own decisions. But hopefully my experience will help you see how that can happen.