Chris Wiegman Chris Wiegman

Privacy or Accessibility… Most People Can’t Have Both

I spend a lot of time talking to people about two major issues in tech, accessibility and privacy. Over the years I find these conversations to be some of the saddest in all of tech as, for the most part, the most accessible solutions are not the most private solutions. This doesn’t have to be.

How we got here?

For years the folks interested in privacy tech have often been the same folks who don’t care about the mainstream. These are often folks using less popular ecosystems such as Linux and the many non-Google variants of Android designed to protect the user from surveillance.

As they develop and contribute to solutions to meet their own needs a whole tech ecosystem has emerged operated on a shoe-string budget by people with the knowledge and privilege to build out what they need for themselves with little input from real customers or other users.

On the other end of the spectrum are companies such as Apple and Google that are building software for the masses including the ~20% of the population that needs to access the software in a different, accessible, way. These companies have the budgets and the designers to look deeply at how to sell their wares to all people as well as much more regulation required of them to ensure that their solutions are accessible for everyone.

The overlap of the two communities is not pretty. For example, I’ve talked to numerous folks with limited vision who feel tied to the Apple ecosystem due to its features allowing these people to use Apple products. This means that, when Apple pivots away from privacy such as it has by announcing CSAM scanning on users’ phones, there is no alternative for them to use.

Extrapolate this over all the software a normal person might use in a given day and the problem quickly multiplies while alternatives get even harder to find. Quite simply, surveillance capitalists have the budgets to provide more accessible software than privacy-focused alternatives.

I’ve even wondered, should I experience something that would require me to need more accessibility features than I currently do (my hearing isn’t great so I’ll rarely bother with a video if it isn’t captioned and, as a result, I usually just avoid anything in video format), would I be trapped in Apple? It’s not just about now, after all, but about the future as well. No one will have perfect health forever.

Where do we go from here?

So how do we solve for this? How do we convince smaller companies and organizations that accessibility matters?

First and foremost the governance structures of these smaller projects need to make a commitments to both accessibility and privacy. I’m not talking about the lone developer working on a side project on the weekends. I’m talking about the big projects, Gnome, WordPress, Linux and all the applications, plugins and more that run on these platforms, need to build accessibility and privacy into their core values as something that should be looked at first rather than as an afterthought.

Second, for the sake of ethics in general, not just accessibility and privacy, there needs to be more formal training and credentialing for most technology professionals. Tech people like to think the skills they develop are somehow special and different of those from other professions such as a pilot or a lawyer.

As a formal pilot who managed to get into law school (I didn’t start it) before pivoting to tech I can tell you it couldn’t be further from the truth. To date I’ve had far more training on subjects involving ethics for my degree in aviation than for anything else I’ve done, even my master’s degree in computer science. Not only should the latter degree change but the requirements for most jobs to need such a degree need to change as well.

The skills needed to be a pilot or a lawyer aren’t anything special that requires credentials for the skills themselves. Instead they require credentials to teach newcomers how those skills should be applied both in their industry and beyond. Enforcing such credentialing in tech would go a long way to imparting the often-overlooked issues such as privacy, accessibility and others.

Finally, it is up to our governments to regulate companies in order to set appropriate standards of both accessibility and privacy. This means increasing the regulation already in place for accessibility as well as limiting the use of data collection and processing that has made most consumer technology a privacy nightmare. Without regulation all the training and core values will mean nothing as the largest companies will continue to grow even larger on the backs of our personal data while all software will continue to cut the corners of both accessibility and privacy they see as too expensive.

We have a long way to go

As much as I would like to say I see improvements coming to either privacy or accessibility in the near future, I would be lying if I did so.

As tech professionals it is, then, up to us to lobby for the change that is needed both in our own projects and in the larger tech world. Strive for privacy and accessibility in your own work and tools and educate those you know to do the same. It may seem like small steps but, over time, they are the small steps needed to make the progress we’ll need to a more ethical tech future.