Use me or Lose me

Have you ever thought about usernames? Our usernames have become synonymous with access to every online service hosted in the Cloud.

Why do we have them? What do they do? Why are they so dangerous? 

What’s in a Username?

A username is the means of identifying all the bits of information that you access, create and modify when you use a computer or surf the Internet. It’s this metadata that’s usually stolen when a security breach occurs.

In the early days of the Internet, a username allowed the sharing a computer to identify yourself as a distinct entity in a chatroom or a BBS. It enabled a unique person to ‘exist’ on something ephemeral like a computer network. 

Then came software-as-a-service (SaaS). Applications like word-processing that used to run locally on your computer, became services offered by Google Docs or Office365 hosted on servers owned by Google or Microsoft. In other words, ‘The Cloud’.

Cloud services run just like local software applications. They access, create and modify data according to your wishes, but in the case of SaaS, your metadata is stored in a database owned by the service provider rather than you, on your computer or smartphone. However, since SaaS providers need to identity the millions or even billions of individuals sharing the same service, they need a way to connect your metadata to you, so a username is the traditional method.

The problem? Your username and the metadata associated with it are not owned by you, because this is software-as-a-service. Even the name tells the story. It’s not ownername for a reason: you don’t own your data – you merely access and ‘use’ it.

Use me or lose me

“The only industries that call their customers ‘users’ are drug dealers and internet companies” – Edward Tufte, Professor emeritus of computer science, political science and statistics at Yale University

Today’s Internet is predominantly service-based and the username has become ubiquitous for access. Social Media is by far the most popular service. Essentially, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok are recommendation algorithms that provide a steady stream of content over a timeline to users.

Ironically, as more companies adopted the SaaS business model and more applications became hosted, the price of personal storage and computing power plummeted. Today’s smartphones are almost a thousand times faster than the mid-’80s Cray-2 Supercomputer, several multiples faster than the computer onboard NASA’s Perseverance Rover currently exploring Mars and — perhaps most significantly — faster than the laptops most of us are carrying around today.

I’ve had enough of your SaaS

So why are we still enslaved to software as a ‘service’? If I can run a large application locally now, why don’t I? Why can’t I just buy a copy of Facebook the same way I used to buy a copy of Microsoft Office and run it on my smartphone? 

Well, it’s because Big Tech realized that artificial intelligence can analyze the massive silos of metadata SaaS providers collect and look for patterns that can be exploited to more effectively target us with advertising. Big Tech has no interest in operating an honest software business, because that would mean giving up all the juicy profits and exorbitant share valuations. The Cloud, Software as a Service and Social Media would not exist if they didn’t have complete control and ownership of the personal metadata associated with your username.

Perhaps it’s time to turn the tables on Big Tech. It’s our username and our metadata so that actually gives us the ultimate power in SaaS relationships. Since we can’t put the genie of the ‘freeware’ SaaS business model back into the bottle, the least we can do is insist they start paying for what they steal from us in the name of convenience.