Purism Laptops to Protect You from Surveillance Capitalism

SAN FRANCISCO - There's a new hardware company on the scene called Purism, and the name is a significant clue as to what the company is all about: pure software. At its heart, Purism is dedicated to providing computer hardware driven entirely by open source software so that users can "trust, but verify." Purism is putting itself in direct opposition to what it considers "surveillance capitalism."

I spoke with CEO Todd Weaver at Pepcom, and it was one of the most significant conversations I've had with a tech exec in a long time. I was already on board with Mr. Weaver's general message when he laid that phrase on me, "surveillance capitalism." That's when he really had me hooked.

Surveillance Capitalism

Surveillance capitalism is happening all around us. Google, Facebook, advertisers, credit card companies, and a long list of other corporate powers who think they're entitled to track everything we do in order to compile massive dossiers on us for their profit. We've been writing and speaking on this topic a lot at The Mac Observer, but that title—surveillance capitalism—wraps up much of what I've been thinking in two words.

Todd Weaver happens to lump Apple in with the other surveillance capitalists. "Why do I have to log in with an Apple account just to download a free piece of software?" he asked me. When I pushed back and said that Apple's business model wasn't to profit from our private data, he acknowledged it, but said that we have to trust Apple at its word without being able to verify it.

He's right. The reality is that I personally do trust Apple on this. Even Mr. Weaver said that you can follow the money on Apple's business model and see that it's not predicated on make us the product, but said it's a problem that we still can't verify that.

TMO's readers will likely disagree with that—or perhaps simply have a different take on it—but he has a logical point. Mr. Weaver agreed to be a guest on the Apple Context Machine on May 25th, and we'll be talking with him about those ideas extensively.

Librem Laptops

I want to spend the rest of this article looking at Librem, Purism's line of laptops that thinks differently about security.

Librem 11

Purism Librem 11 Laptop

Purism has a five point manifesto on its website where it promises to use only open source software (including drivers); to design hardware that respects user privacy, to always put privacy and security first, to not discriminate, and to only source high quality hardware.

To this end, Purism's Librem line has such things as hardware kill switches for the laptop's microphone, camera, and Wi-Fi card. Those buttons activate a hardware switch that physically cuts power to those components, ensuring in a pinch that they aren't being remotely accessed, tampered with, activated, or otherwise used without your permission.

That may sound extreme to many people, but there are plenty of folks to whom such precautions are a real part of their daily lives—from anyone worried about an open network, to someone concerned about being hacked, to dissidents living under an authoritarian regime (this includes criminals, too, but that's part of the broader philosophical battle we've been witnessing here in the U.S.).

Librem models also use high quality components, including processors, GPUs, RAM, etc. And that's where philosophy re-enters the picture. Purism is charging a premium for its laptops. A Librem 13 (13-inch display) is priced at $1,400, while the Librem 15 is $1,800. The company was showing off the new Librem 11 shown above at $1,200.

The devices are thin and they look better than most PCs. The other thing you're paying for is the knowledge that your money is going to fund only those things that meet the company's ideals, and that includes driver development, software development, OS development, kernel developments, etc.

Microsoft isn't getting that money. Google isn't getting that money. Facebook isn't getting that money. And Apple isn't getting that money, either, though our readers will probably look at that differently than Purism or its customers and fans.

Another way of looking at it is that Purism—alone in the PC world—has adopted Apple's model of charging enough for the hardware to fund development of the things the company deems important. And so far, many (mostly in the open source community) have embraced it. Librem 13 and Librem 15 raised more than a $1 million in crowd sourced funding.

Purism has grand plans for overturning surveillance capitalism—I suspect that's not going to happen, and I told Mr. Weaver that directly. But that doesn't mean that Purism can't change the conversation and be very successful doing so. At the very least, there's a viable hardware provider in the market with a business model predicated on protecting user privacy. That's a great thing in this age of surveillance capitalism.