Become A Full-Blown Privacy Fanatic With Purism's Librem Laptop

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 per cent 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.

Image: Dell Cameron/Gizmodo

If you want to go beyond merely using browser extensions intended to block privacy-killing trackers and advertisements, a laptop manufacturer you've likely never heard of has created a business based on a full on defence of privacy. It employs its own custom operating system designed for one purpose: to prevent the laptop's owners from inadvertently relinquishing control over their most sensitive and personal data.

The $US1399 Librem 13-inch manufactured by California-based Purism is a surveillance paranoiac's fantasy. While industry leaders -- Dell, Lenovo, and HP, among others -- construct 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 user's security and privacy foremost in mind.

If you decide to use this computer, you're basically saying that privacy is no longer an accessory, but rather a lifestyle that requires a prodigious shift in every facet of your online behaviour. For most the concept of switching up your routine so dramatically will be far too intimidating. Buyer's remorse will come for those who, having taken the leap, suddenly decide the evolution is too painful. They will gladly surrender their privacy once again.

A traditional USB port almost feels like a novelty of late. (Image: Purism)

For a select few, however, there's no price too steep to pay in the quest for privacy. Again, security demands sacrifice, and so, with the Librem, the first thing you'll be asked to forfeit is 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 Purism's own team of specialised Debian developers.

Now, this is normally the part where tech reporters feel duty-bound to warn you about the what a god-awful "chore" it is to pick up Linux. I'm going to pass. If you have any useful skills whatsoever beyond tying your own shoes, then I promise you already possess the faculties 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 also ports for HDMI and USB-C, as well as an SD card reader. (Image: Purism)

There are significant advantages to using a Linux-based operating system -- in this case, Debian -- the least of which is the enhanced privacy you'll 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, it's not as snappy to configure as Mac OS, you'll eventually come to enjoy not existing within the confines of Apple's bullshit walled off garden.

Though with Purism there's still a wall. To protect your privacy, it won't let you install some of your favourite (data-stealing) apps from its app store, which is simply called "Software." 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.

The 6th generation Intel processor won't win a speed race, but can still work for productivity tasks. (Image: Purism)

But you bought the Librem! Therefor 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 isn't in the business of participating in or making convenient your self-destructive behaviour.

PureOS does, however, offer some significant privacy advantages if, say, you do decided to install Chrome instead of using Purebrowser, the Librem's 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 can't 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 endeavour to use only the free and open-source apps downloadable via the Software storefront.

Note the two easy-to-miss kill switches located just below the screen. (Image: Purism)

My personal favourite feature of the Librem -- which absolutely should, but does not, come standard in all new laptops -- is a physical kill switch above the keyboard that deactivates the webcam and microphone. (Say goodbye to that grody piece of masking tape you've been using.) Purism claims this mechanism will make your webcam virtually "unhackable." 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 shouldn't be able to see or hear you. Period.

A second and equally as useful kill switch deactivates both the Librem's 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 Librem's firmware cannot "phone home." This means, for example, that the Qualcomm Atheros chipset fabricated into the motherboard uses open-source wireless drivers so you can be sure it isn't running some mystery code that's slipping your wi-fi passwords or other sensitive data into RAM storage -- or worse, transmitting it to some malicious third party.

In place of the Windows key you'll find the "Purism key" marked by a white rectangle. (Image: Purism)

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 code -- a fact that seemed to fly in the face of Purism's promise that all of its components would be "free according to the strictest of guidelines set forth by the Free Software Foundation's Free Software definition."

Guts wise the Librem 13 isn't particularly special. It's got a 6th generation Intel i5 processor that's 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 it's fucking awful. I'd say I'm just spoiled because Apple's Magic Trackpad 2, which I've been using for years, is too damn perfect, but the way the Elantech Trackpad the Librem sports handles is downright offensive.

The back-lit keyboard is also nothing to write home about, though I had no specific complaints save one: THERE'S NO GODDAMN INDICATOR LIGHT ON THE CAPS LOCK KEY.

The cat digs it. (Image: Dell Cameron/Gizmodo)

With its high $US1,400 price tag and privacy focus, the Librem is a device with a very thin market. If you're not a security expert yourself and don't feel confident about securing your own device from the hackers, spies, and shady corporations tracking your every online movement, then the Librem is an option -- albeit a very extreme one -- worth a second look.

README

  • From its integrated circuits to the application layer, the Librem is manufactured with user privacy as the utmost priority.
  • You're 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 you're not an experienced Linux user, you should approach the adoption of PureOS as if it were new hobby you're hoping to master -- there's a bit of a learning curve.

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