ICYMI...For our opening 21 Questions with Decentralize Today of 2021, we stay in Europe (somewhere) to meet and chat with David, who is both a co-founder and the current development & community manager at Safing. Their principal product is Portmaster which is a free and open-source application that aims to put you back in charge of all your computer's network connections.
Now a self professsed privacy advocate, David explains what drives and inspires him as well as detailing where Safing are going in the future. For more information on the company, see their recently revamped website at safing.io
Fight surveillance because you love Freedom.
Decentralize.today: if you could choose three words to describe yourself what would they be and why?
Privacy-Advocate - Definitely not always been one, I was a big Google fanboy in my teens. But ever since quitting my job in 2017 to start a privacy company this just catapulted into being a big part of who I am.
Determined - life throws plenty of challenges onto me, just as with everyone else. It sucks to be in a hard place, but what helps me is looking back at the mountains I have already climbed. It keeps me going.
Listener - I think that has just been a trait forever. I have always liked asking questions more than answering them.
DT: How, why and when did you get into online privacy protection work?
I previously worked at a very successful IT gaming company as a backend developer. There I saw first-hand how data is collected in bulk and then used to manipulate. Even though both the team and the payment were awesome I decided to quit and instead started a privacy company with two of my mates, with lots of uncertainties and adventures ahead.
That was at the end of 2017 and ever since then this journey further shaped and developed my understanding of privacy. Both seeing the impact it has on our societies and how we can solve them. But I'm still learning.
DT: What were you doing professionally before Safing?
I was a backend developer. I started learning to program in my last year of school out of interest. I am grateful I could land a job soon after my finals. From that job, and in the very successful gaming company (see above) I learned tons from seniors way smarter than me. I was just a beginner soaking up all their knowledge. I worked in that field for four and a half years before quitting and founding Safing.
DT: How would you describe your current work to a 5 year old kid?
Great question! Probably like this:
"Some bad guys go onto other peoples computer to make bad stuff without the person even knowing. I help people to protect themselves so they can block the bad guys and the bad stuff."
Broken down, I basically described an anti-virus software haha. But on the other hand, we can simplify "surveillance capitalism" as one big, malicious virus. So I guess it works out in the end.
DT: What was your first ever job (even as a kid)?
I used to sell pretzels at concerts and football games. Getting paid to watch concerts was super amazing! Obviously I had to work before and after. And at the football games I had to work throughout the matches, so the free entertainment was not an added benefit in that case :)
DT: Who is your biggest inspiration when it comes to work/business?
Probably Seth Godin. Just because I have been inspired by him the longest. He has short, down to earth advice in regards to marketing. You can check out my favorite blog post of him or browse his top 100 blog posts
DT: What’s the best life and work advice you’ve ever been given?
So many people have given me great advice, I cannot think of "the best" one. But here is one that impacted me in my early teens:
“I have never let schooling interfere with my education” by Mark Twain
DT: Your favorite superhero or fictional character, and why?
I am really not into superhero's, probably because they often are too inhuman, too perfect. On the other hand I do enjoy reading fantasy, but no character really stands out.
DT: What were you like as a student?
I really oppose some schools who have the attitude that "one shoe must fit all". It did not fit me. And hence I leaned towards being a minimalist. More so after reading Mark Twain's quote (noted 2 questions above). I only did the minimum in the subjects I did not enjoy. And in the subjects I enjoyed I naturally dived into more - or not - depending on puberty ;)
DT: What would be your dream project if money were not an object?
It would still be Safing. I would love to throw more money at it so we can speed up the progress. Especially with limited resources, patience is a virtue haha.
DT: What is your favorite sport or game to watch?
Probably football, especially the world cups are great to watch.
DT: Working in the privacy space, which is frankly huge, how do you decide your strategic focus and determine the programmes required to address these?
Today's issues with (non-)privacy has many fronts where help is needed. We simply chose the area where we think we perform best: solving privacy problems at their technical core.
But overall, I love seeing different approaches to solving the problem of mass surveillance. You, alongside many others, are doing an amazing job at educating and informing people. And then there are others fighting for better laws and regulation. Everybody can play their part and I'm thankful for everybody who contributes.
DT: Who are your real life heroes?
Even if cliche in this space: Edward Snowden, for staking his life in order to serve the people. That was courageous, revealing and inspiring. It inspired me and my co-founders to quit our "safe" jobs and dedicate our work-life to privacy. I have no idea how I would react were my life at stake, but I hope that dystopia never happens or if it does, that I am rightfully equipped to do the right thing at that moment.
DT: What does your family think of your work and advocacy of online privacy?
Most of my family supports me. I am grateful for their encouragement and support, I know not everyone will have that.
DT: What was the last book you read that you would recommend to others?
Honestly, I did not invest much time into reading in the recent years, but I did give "Permanent Record" by Edward Snowden a go - it is a really good read if you have not devoured it already!
DT: What grinds your gears or are your pet peeves? What do you really dislike?
I really dislike when people interrupt me unannounced, especially when I am "in the zone". When a person pops in and "just needs 5 minutes" that often results in me needing like 30 minutes to get back into the zone - especially within programming. We talk plenty at work about these things, so it has not been a big issue at Safing. And ever since I started working remotely from abroad, that became even less of an issue.
DT: Do you have an “I lost my private keys” type story or a crazy privacy/surveillance related story? Do share!
Haha, yeah, not my private keys, but my contacts. A few months before COVID hit I moved to Sweden, forgot to backup my phone for a while and then I dropped it so bad that it broke. So I was in a new country, in the middle of a pandemic and had just lost all my recent contacts. It was not an ideal situation to socialize. Oh well, now I can already smirk about it.
DT: Where do you see online privacy protection and mass surveillance in ten years time? Where would you like to see them?
Something is impossible until it isn't. In that regard I am hopeful that we will be amazed how much has happened in many countries. But on the other hand, there will be countries where the downward spiral will sadly continue and result in really abusive governments. You know the pictures of the rich skyscrapers being next to the slums? I believe it will be the same for countries and their mass surveillance laws. In one, you will have authoritarian regimes imprisoning people for opposing the government and micro-punishing citizens for ridiculous things; and in a neighboring country you will have good freedom and privacy laws. Kinda hard to picture to be honest.
DT: What’s your go-to form of entertainment or pastime? What do you do for fun?
Explore Sweden, chill, watch movies, go for a run or play video games.
DT: You have the power to solve one world problem forever. Which one would you choose?
Greed of the most powerful. Both greed for money and for power. So many wars and issues in the last decades, if not most, were caused by powerful people or countries literally playing chess with millions of other lives in an attempt to gain more power and money. Proxy wars. Weapon industry. Surveillance Capitalism. Facebook. It all comes down to greed.
DT: What would be the one thing you would say to your 18 year old self, if you had the chance?
The first thing that comes to my mind is: "Google ain't as cool as you think it is ;)" The wink is important - he'd learn anyway.
Whilst we have you on the line, so to speak, maybe you would like to share the 'what's next' for you and the Safing company?
Primarily we will continue to develop the Portmaster. As a short intro: the Portmaster is an open source application that blocks mass surveillance at the kernel level. It gives you back the power that should have always been yours, for free.
Other than that, our next steps are marketing the Portmaster in an honest and privacy-respecting way; maturing the integrated VPN alternative and scaling it enough to become financially sustainable. Big feats for sure, but looking back at what we already accomplished, it does not sound too bad lol.
For context, in the years after quitting our jobs we had to figure out how to finance ourselves, kept 100% ownership, grew to a team of 7 and developed an outrageous idea into a powerful reality. We worked hard, sure - but survivorship bias always plays its part. Nevertheless, we will move forward with our momentum, hoping fate treats us kindly.
Thanks for the interview DT! And thanks for reading!
Top man! Thank you, David, all the best, DT