Outrage at Facebook has reached a boil. Over the past week, the news that Cambridge Analytica accessed data from tens of millions of Facebook accounts resulted in a wave of members deleting their profiles. Across the Web, users shared tips for improving privacy on the social network. Many debated just how much of a difference pressing "delete" would, in fact, make.
Serial entrepreneur Todd Weaver has been working for years to prevent just this kind of problem. In 2015, his then-one-year-old company, Purism, raised more than $1 million through a crowdfunding campaign to develop a line of laptops that would put the security and privacy of users first. The machines run open-source software and come armed with two "kill switches"; one immediately halts camera and microphone access, and one cuts off wireless and Bluetooth connectivity.
"We fight for digital rights for users," Weaver says. "That's the core of what we focus on."
Purism's Librem computers run on an open-source operating system called PureOS and favor other privacy-protecting open-source programs, some of which come pre-installed. Though users can add new applications as they see fit, the laptops are, by and large, not intended for software created by the likes of Microsoft.
The machines' Web browser, called the PureBrowser, is based on Firefox but comes stripped of third-party advertising trackers and equipped with additional privacy tools. It uses encrypted connections whenever possible and does not collect users' identifying information. So essentially, every time you use PureBrowser to log into Facebook, you're doing so in an environment isolated from the rest of your internet use, so the social network can't track your location or your browsing habits. This could be a refreshing change even if you're less security-minded, as pesky ads to retail sites you'd once stumbled upon will stop following you around.
"We're not going to stop someone from using Facebook if they want to use Facebook," Weaver says. "But we can make it so if you log onto Facebook, it doesn't cross-contaminate everything."
If you're wondering, Purism itself does have a Facebook page--with more than 11,000 followers. And if you're curious how the company can claim to put its users, rather than its investors, first: Purism is incorporated as what's called in Washington State a "social purpose corporation," which allows a business to prioritize social objectives over fiduciary duties. Today, Purism is based in California, which has a similar incorporation class.
In addition to crowdfunding, the 32-employee company is funded by small seed investors and revenue from its laptop sales. (Prices range from $1,199 to $1,599.) Purism now also has a Librem 5 phone in the works through a crowdfunding campaign, which has already raised more than $2 million through 3,000 orders. The company plans to ship a developer kit in June and fill orders next year.
To certain security buffs, the phone will be remarkable: It will not run on either iOS or the Android operating system--meaning it will not attempt to collect user data for Apple or Google, and its users will not be dependent on either company to purchase apps. It can also be used without a carrier as a Wi-Fi phone, using VoIP for calling. And like Purism's computers, it comes with a privacy geek's hardware dream: kill switches.
Weaver says interest in his computers has increased over the past week, and sales have increased following previous security snafus such as the CIA's Mac firmware attack. But where Purism laptops in the past sold primarily to individuals, they are also, according to the company, selling increasingly to organizations and teams. Weaver estimates 50 percent of 2018 revenue for Purism will come from enterprise sales. (The company declined to give revenue figures.)
Purism considers every computer-maker to be a competitor--but there are others making computers specifically aimed at buyers who'd like to keep their identities and personal information out of the hands of corporations and governments. German company Vikings makes desktop workstations that it says can help you "protect yourself or your business from espionage, corrupt governments, and other malicious third parties." New Jersey-based Libiquity builds custom laptops in this same vein--and they have kill switches, too.
Weaver believes the rise in interest in this sort of anti-surveillance machine is not temporary. "It's part of a larger trend of people realizing they don't like their data being sold, and that companies control individuals' rights," he says. "The reason individuals over the past decade have given up their rights was for convenience. I think we are seeing the pendulum swinging back on that."