Concerns over online privacy and security are increasingly changing the way consumers spend their money and behave online. According to a Pew Research study conducted one year ago, 86 percent of internet users have now taken at least some steps to conceal their digital footprints, though many say they would like to do more, if only they knew how.
If you want to go beyond merely using browser extensions intended to block privacy-killing trackers and advertisements, a laptop manufacturer youâve likely never heard of has created a business based on a full on defense of privacy. It employs its own custom operating system designed for one purpose: to prevent the laptopâs owner from inadvertently relinquishing control over their most sensitive and personal data.
The $1399 Librem 13 manufactured by California-based Purism is a surveillance paranoiacâs fantasy. While industry leadersâDell, Lenovo, and HP, among othersâconstruct their machines based on factors such as the price and availability of parts, with the software powering their operating systems geared toward usability, the Librem is instead built with the userâs security and privacy foremost in mind.
If you decide to use this computer, youâre basically saying that privacy is no longer an accessory, but rather a lifestyle that requires a prodigious shift in every facet of your online behavior. For most, the concept of switching up your routine so dramatically will be far too intimidating. Buyerâs remorse will come for those who, having taken the leap, suddenly decide the evolution is too painful. Theyâll gladly surrender their privacy once again.
For a select few, however, thereâs no price too steep to pay in the quest for privacy. Again, security demands sacrifice, and so, with the Librem, the first thing youâll be asked to forfeit is the familiarity of your preferred operating system. In place of macOS or Windows, the Librem leverages a Debian GNU/Linux distribution to create PureOS, a simple and unique Linux-based system designed by Purismâs own team of specialized Debian developers.
Now, this is normally the part where tech reporters feel duty-bound to warn you about the what a god-awful âchoreâ it is to pick up Linux. Iâm going to pass. If you have any useful skills whatsoever beyond tying your own shoes, then I promise you already possess the facultiesÂ required to conquer Linux. The biggest challenge will be taking an interest in mastering something new, maybe reading the first 25-30 pages of a For Dummies book, and avoiding the urge to crawl back into your boring comfort zone. You can learn Linux, it will not take forever, and when you do you will be grateful you did.
There are significant advantages to using a Linux-based operating systemâin this case, Debianâthe least of which is the enhanced privacy youâll enjoy from a system devoid of rancid bloatware. Linux is infinitely more secure than Windows. Its codebase is maintained by the umpteen people who actually use it, and when a glitch does arise, it gets fixed fast. And while, yes, itâs not as snappy to configure as Mac OS, youâll eventually come to enjoy not existing within the confines of Appleâs bullshit walled off garden.
Though with Purism thereâs still a wall. To protect your privacy, it wonât let you install some of your favorite (data-stealing) apps from its app store, which is simply called âSoftware.â PureOS includes and only allows users to install and run software that meets strict requirements with regard to privacy protection. All of the software it makes available is both free and open source (FOSS), meaning it can be easily audited by anyone to weed out nefarious code. There should be a tool for virtually every task you do from word processing to image editing. LibreOffice, which is basically a free version of Microsoft Office; Kodi instead of Media Player/iTunes; Gnome Mail and Thunderbird for email
But you bought the Librem! Therefore you are free to do with it as you wish. So if you dislike the draconian nature of the app store, there are plenty of workarounds for installing apps offered by companies that are more than eager to compromise your privacy. Purism simply isnât in the business of participating in or making convenient your self-destructive behavior.
PureOS does, however, offer some significant privacy advantages if, say, you do decide to install Chrome instead of using Purebrowser, the Libremâs built-in Firefox-based browser that comes packed with privacy-based add-ons, such as HTTPS Everywhere and Ublock Origin, an anti-tracking extension.
Various app-isolating features (such as Flatpak) ensure that any insecure applications canât read other areas of the system. For example, nothing that pops up in Chrome can access your password manager. Still, to get the most bang for your privacy-buck, you should endeavor to use only the free and open-source apps downloadable via the Software storefront.
My personal favorite feature of the Libremâwhich absolutely should, but does not, come standard in all new laptopsâis a physical kill switch above the keyboard that deactivates the webcam and microphone. (Say goodbye to that grody piece of masking tape youâve been using.) Purism claims this mechanism will make your webcam virtually âunhackable.â The killswitch, which I did not personally probe with a power supply tester, severs all power to both the webcam and the internal mic. In other words, there is no battery backup for malware to take advantage of to activate the cam or mic when the switch is disengaged. Flip it and people shouldnât be able to see or hear you. Period.
A second and equally as useful kill switch deactivates both the Libremâs Bluetooth and wi-fi functions, though, I admit it would be more useful if these were separate switches. Both the webcam/mic switch and wi-fi/Bluetooth switch appeared to work as promised and their utility is easy to appreciate in an age of effortless wireless intrusion.
Another cool feature, frequently touted by Purism, is that the Libremâs firmware cannot âphone home.â This means, for example, that the Qualcomm Atheros chipset fabricated into the motherboard uses open-source wireless drivers so you can be sure it isnât running some mystery code thatâs slipping your wi-fi passwords or other sensitive data into RAM storageâor worse, transmitting it to some malicious third party.
The Librem also comes pre-loaded with the open-source Coreboot instead of proprietary closed-source BIOS firmware. This change comes about after a years-long controversy which led some critics to advise avoiding previous versions of the Librem altogether. Earlier models of the Librem shipped using an AMI UEFI BIOS, which relies on proprietary, closed-source codeâa fact that seemed to fly in the face of Purismâs promise that all of its components would be âfree according to the strictest of guidelines set forth by the Free Software Foundationâs Free Software definition.â
Guts wise the Librem 13 isnât particularly special. Itâs got a 6th generation Intel i5 processor thatâs about a year too old, and comes standard with 4GB of RAM, and a 120GB SSD. The processor, RAM, and storage can all be upgraded, but the matte finish 1080p display cannot. The only real downside to the Librem, aside from the some outdated guts, is the usability of the hardware itself.
The trackpad sucks. By that I mean itâs fucking awful. Iâd say Iâm just spoiled because Appleâs Magic Trackpad 2, which Iâve been using for years, is too perfect, but the way the Elantech Trackpad the Librem sports handles is downright offensive. (Sadly, the Elantech is the best best GNU/Linux trackpad available.) The back-lit keyboard is also nothing to write home about, though I had no specific complaints save one: THEREâS NO INDICATOR LIGHT ON THE CAPS LOCK KEY.
With its high $1,400 price tag and privacy focus, the Librem is a device with a very thin market. Still, if youâre not a security expert yourself and donât feel confident about securing your own device from the hackers, spies, and shady corporations tracking your every click, then the Librem is an optionâalbeit an extreme oneâthatâs worth consideration.
- From its integrated circuits to the application layer, the Librem is manufactured with user privacy as the utmost priority.
- Youâre paying extra for privacy-centric components.
- The battery life is good enough. The trackpad is atrocious. The keyboard is nothing special.
- A physical kill switch severing all power to the the webcam and microphone is pure genius.
- If youâre not an experienced Linux user, you should approach the adoption of PureOS as if it were new hobby youâre hoping to masterâthereâs a bit of a learning curve.
13.3-inch 1920x1080p matte display â¢ roughly 7-9 hours battery life â¢ 2 Core i5 6200U Skylake CPU (4 threads) â¢ 2.8 GHz CPU max frequency â¢ Up to 2 TB storage â¢ Intel HD Graphics 52 â¢ 16GB max memory â¢ DDR4 AT 2133 MHz â¢ 720p 1.0 megapixel webcam â¢ Atheros 802.11n w/ two antenna â¢ two internal speakers â¢ 1 audio jack, mic/line out â¢ 1 HDMI port for external monitor (4k capable) â¢ 2-in-1 SD/MMC card reader â¢ 325 x 219 x 18mm â¢ 1.4kg (3.3lbs)