Turn off your iCloud backups! This piece of advice echoed all over the web last year after Apple announced a new tool that would scan iPhone photos for child sexual abuse imagery, prompting widespread concern about digital privacy.
But simply turning off iCloud backups was an incomplete solution. The macro problem, I wrote in my column last year, is that people have sacrificed ownership and control of their data. That’s because most of us now solely back up our data to company-owned servers; we no longer store data on local devices such as external drives.
So my recommendation to readers was a behavioral shift: using a hybrid approach of backing up data to both the cloud and local devices in order to regain ownership and independence. This way, if a company does something unsavory, we can simply purge our data from its servers and take the files elsewhere.
I’ve been writing Tech Fix for The New York Times for the last seven years, roughly half my tenure reporting on the industry for various magazines and news outlets. When it came to consumer tech in the mid-2000s, people wanted to read about new gadgets the companies were making. Now tech journalism has shifted into stories about Big Tech’s power and impact on our lives. Along the way, I’ve made tweaks to how I write about tech to serve our readers.
And it’s time, I’ve concluded, for another change.
When our tech editor, Pui-Wing Tam, and I started Tech Fix in 2015, we focused on what we felt people would care about the most: the frustrating issues created by their technology, and how to solve them. Some of our popular problem-solving columns included tips on troubleshooting slow Wi-Fi, shrinking expensive phone bills and elongating smartphone battery life.
Over the years, tech companies have grown at extraordinary rates, with millions of us now hooked on their products and subscription services. Our problems have become too complex to resolve by following a few steps outlined in bullet points.
I’ve also closely studied your feedback, which has shown that you care about tech’s profound impact on your lives. Last year’s column about data ownership and iCloud backups started a spirited discussion in the comments section. Some of you recommended further methods to protect data, like keeping an extra copy on a flash drive with a friend or in storage, in the event of a flood or a fire. Others raised questions about whether Apple’s tool was a valid method for combating child sexual abuse imagery. (In response to the backlash, Apple postponed the release of the scanner indefinitely.)
These types of conversations are crucial. They get us to think deeply about how we use our devices, apps and services, and how we can remain in control of our tech rather than be controlled by it. So going forward, Tech Fix will be taking a different direction: zooming out to grapple with tech’s impact on society and ways we can stay in control.
On Wednesday, our rebooted column examines popular internet-connected surveillance cameras like Ring and whether they do more harm than good. In the coming weeks, we’ll write about how smartphone ownership has become similar to car ownership — and how our behavior around buying phones can still change for the better. And we’ll explore websites and stores that request our phone numbers and email addresses, and what this means for our privacy.
This isn’t to say we’re abandoning the things you love about the column. We will still provide helpful guides about the tech problems that annoy us and reviews of newsworthy products. But just as the software on our tech needs a periodic update, so does the way we think and write about it. As always, we welcome feedback.