public tech support, lavabit and me

A few weeks ago, a library member asked me to help her sign up for Facebook to find her kid. This is something I’m never entirely sure if I’m supposed to be doing. I mean, technically this takes up a bunch of time, and it’s not directly connected with our library resources. But really, for a lot of people who use our public internet computers I’m the public equivalent to the family member who can reset grandma’s VCR (which was not my job in our family – thank goodness for actually techy cousins). So I help with this kind of thing fairly often.

This particular instance was kind of interesting because the library member wanted to get rid of her Hotmail address before getting back into Facebook. For people who don’t use these tools all the time there’s a lot more disposability to these identities, which I find interesting. I mean, I wouldn’t trash an email address just because I forgot my Facebook password, but people do it.

I talked to her about how she didn’t need to delete her Hotmail account just to get onto Facebook again, but she was adamant, so I helped her do it. But before doing that I did manage to explain how we should set up a separate email address first. The idea of having two email addresses to be able to authenticate each other is a stumbling block I run into a lot with our library members especially because so many of them don’t have phones to get texts for authentication codes modern web authentication likes to use.

I asked her if she wanted a different Hotmail address and she didn’t. I suggested setting up a Gmail account and she had this visceral reaction against Google. I didn’t press on about it, but am interested in why this non-technologist grandmother really didn’t want to be associated with Google. Because of that reaction though, and because I’d gathered she didn’t use her email very often and basically just needed it to get on Facebook, I suggested setting her up with a Lavabit account, and she was fine with that.

So Lavabit was a very secure email provider (the one that Edward Snowden used) but they had a small free account option, which would work for this member’s purposes. We got her set up and then used it as her Facebook login, and I was pleased to be able to teach someone a bit about email and how it works.

Now, you probably know this already but I have to use the past tense talking about Lavabit, because that Snowden association got Lavabit shut down. They were going to have to comply with US government requests they felt were counter to their values so they shuttered up and are now involved in a big legal fight. And I have kind of created more problems for this library member who I haven’t seen recently if she wants to actually check her email. But she should still be able to get on Facebook, which was all she really wanted.

I don’t know if there’s a moral to this story that I actually want to draw from it. I mean, the obvious lesson is that I should only help people set things up with major corporations’ products because there’s much less chance they’ll disappear. But especially when those corporations are helping to spy on people I feel like I shouldn’t be just handing them naive users. Providing options and alternatives is something I feel strongly about. But most people want something that just works not an education in information policy and privacy, so I should probably be going with simpler tools than better ones?

Bah. I don’t know. If I get the chance I’ll help that member with setting up something to replace her now disabled Lavabit email address and hope my advice didn’t sour her completely on using the tools of the 21st century.

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