Some notes on personal privacy in an age of oppression

It is clear now that the Progressive elites are attempting that famous “fundamental change” in America that Obama was talking about.  This change means strict racial categorization and discrimination and other identarian policies, attacks and persecution of conservative Christians, economic persecution of dissent, strict censorship of expression, loss of the right to assemble, and of course, loss of the right of self-protection to bear arms, with politically-motivated selective enforcement. We shall have the freedom of the slave state.  One of the most hateful policies that is coming is China-style surveillance.  We already have that to a large degree, but it has generally unobtrusive.  It will be weaponized, and will be open and intrusive.

People who still believe in individual liberty need to become aware of surveillance much more  than we are now.  I had a conversation with a friend of mine who is in despair because he or she sees no way of avoiding it, and thus no way of living a life with a semblance of privacy.

I understand this despair. I am worried about the future myself.  But… that doesn’t mean we can do nothing. The biggest problem I see is the feeling that it is “all or nothing,” that if it is not possible to achieve complete privacy, then it is not worth the effort to achieve any privacy at all.  That is wrong.  Here’s my philosophy, for what it’s worth, taken from that conversation with a friend.

We  were talking about having a private server for things like web pages, such as this one, and the habit of signing every message with one’s name or similar identifier.  In particular, I told my friend to stop signing emails with his or her name.

Using a private server is “more” safe than using a hosting service, but nothing is absolutely safe.  But “more” is better than “none.”  The key to security is habit.  If you get in the *habit* of using DuckDuckGo, you  won’t “accidentally” use Google.  If you get in the habit of using the Tor private window in the Brave browser, you won’t “forget” to use it.  If you get in the habit of turning on a VPN *every time* you log in, you won’t forget etc. If you get in the habit of not signing email, you won’t forget and sign one you wish you didn’t.  l’ve gotten him or her to the point of using an email address that isn’t easily identified, and if if he or she would stop signing his or her emails with a name, it would be better.

The thing to remember is that computer security is only about 30% technology.  It is 70% social engineering and habit. Read about how the FBI got Dread Pirate Roberts on the onion network (see:

https://www.wired.com/2013/11/silk-road/
https://theconversation.com/end-of-the-silk-road-how-did-dread-pirate-roberts-get-busted-18886
https://www.quora.com/How-was-Silk-Road-taken-down?share=1

)

The bottom line is that while there were some important  technological failures, the FBI got this person mostly because of behavioral/social engineering mistakes:  using the handle “altoid” for both clearnet and darknet stuff, having stuff delivered to a home, etc.  It’s that thoughtless stuff that gets 90% of people.

A friend of mine  had marijuana sent from New York to his hotel room in another state by freaking FedEx, and was caught because of a dog sniffing the package at the FedEx hub in Memphis.  If he had bought his drugs from local people he would have lasted longer.  If he had grown his own marijuana, he would have lasted longer still.  Eventually he would have been caught, I’m sure, since he was on a self-destructive path.  But it would not have been *then*.  It’s easy to say “I would never make that mistake,” but most of us would — eventually — because we are lazy and sloppy and develop habits of being lazy and sloppy.

These bad habits become our defaults.   Worse, people do things that harm security because it’s *easier* to develop the bad habit, and people don’t think it’s worth the effort.  It’s hard to develop a good habit because the good habit requires overcoming the inclination to do what’s easier — and the easier thing becomes the dominant habit.  Unless you use your will to develop the better habit.  The classic example is using stairs instead of an elevator.  It’s harder to use the stairs, and it takes conscious effort to choose to do it.  At first.  Then, when it becomes the habit to use the stairs, it feels odd to use the elevator.  It’s magic.

Another great example is using cash all the time rather than a credit card — which is surveilled by everybody under the sun.  Paying with cash or card is a habit.  If your habit is to pay with a card, you’ll forget and use the card for a purchase when you wish you didn’t.  If your habit is to pay with cash, then you have to think about using a card, and you’ll use cash when you “forget.”

This is true for all privacy issues.  For instance, if you want to avoid a cell phone for communications, everybody has to get in the *habit* of listening to a two way radio.

The key is the habit of simply being mindful about security. Every day, I sit down and ask myself what I did today that I could have just as easily done in a more private manner.  For instance, why do I have my smart TV hooked to the internet when I don’t really need it?  Why did I pay for that burger at McDonalds with a card when I could have just as easily paid cash?  Why did I go to McDonalds and buy a crappy hamburger (and thus be caught on CCTV) when I could have just as easily made a sandwich and taken it to work?  For
instance, we now  tend to buy a bunch of ham and cheese croissants at a local donut shop that are just as good as McDonalds burgers and almost as cheap. That decreases CCTV surveillance from once a day to once a week for that task, at least.  Of course that doesn’t stop street cameras, etc., but it’s one less exposure.  It’s a small step among many.

Think about how incremental this is:

Bad habit:  Stopping by McDonalds every morning on the way to work for a McMuffin and coffee and paying with credit card.

Step one:  Stop by McDonalds, but pay with cash.
Step two:  Stop at a local place that has less surveillance, and pay with cash
Step three:  Buy a week’s worth of ham and cheese croissants from a local (not large chain) donut shop with cash, and eat one on the way to work each day.
Step four:  Make your own damn sandwiches.

Each one provides a small incremental increase in privacy.  Which step to move to is a personal decision about the balance of privacy and convenience.  But just because you can’t be perfect and 100% secure, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be mindful and make it a little more difficult to exploit you — and get better over time.

The analogy I use is locking your car.  We all know that we should lock our car.  Do we do it because it will stop everyone from breaking in?  Of course not.  It will only stop the guy who is wandering through the parking lot jiggling door handles.  If your car is locked, and the one next to you is unlocked, which one will he exploit?  It’s that “You don’t have to run faster than the bear, you just have to run faster than the guy next to you” philosophy.  But you can always do a little more. You can add an alarm or one of those stick things on the steering wheel.  They may not be all that great, but they will deter a few more people.  But not all.  And then you can go to fancy electronic keys.  And then encrypted fobs.  And then parking your car in a garage.  And then parking your car in a garage with security guards.  And on and on.  With each step, you incrementally add a little more security.  It will never be perfect.  If some sooper dooper thief with unlimited resources and world class expertise decides to steal your car, it will be stolen.  But with each step, it’s a little less likely.  For that sooper dooper thief, the key is making it less likely you will be targeted, which is a different (though overlapping) issue.

The same thing is true of computer security.  For those of you who use linux and ssh, how hard is it to change your ssh port away from 22?  Not hard at all.  But doing so means that those fifteen zillion bots and script kiddies in China and Iran won’t be banging on your door looking for that one vulnerability you forgot to close. Five minutes of effort, and you’ve decreased your exposure a little.

It’s not the government I’m really concerned about when it comes to this stuff.  Don’t get me wrong, I am concerned about the direction the government is taking — but frankly, if the government wants to take you down, it will. Worse, the kinds of things one has to do to be completely free of government surveillance are exactly those things that will cause them to notice you for taking those steps.

Instead, I’m much more concerned about the cultural changes associated with the transition to a socialist totalitarian state.  There are people who get their self-worth from hurting others, and these people flourish in a totalitarian state.  I’m concerned about the woke mob that will search all your old posts in order to find a pretense to destroy you.  I’m concerned about some wacky person who decides that you are his or her enemy.  I’m concerned about the neighbor who decides to complain to the HOA.  I’m concerned about the local business competitor who decides that they want to contrive some scheme to ruin your business. I’m concerned about the coworker who decides they want to use you as a pawn in some office power play. I’m concerned about some pissed of social justice warrior who targets me for some reason I don’t comprehend.  I’ve seen people harmed in all these ways.  To return to the government, while I don’t believe that it’s possible to stop the government if it wants to destroy you, it *is* possible to present oneself so that it’s less likely that the government will *target* you, while still maintaining some truthfulness to yourself. Part of that is doing small unobtrusive things that “naturally” decrease one’s footprint.

It’s amazing how much people can know about you.  A few months ago I suffered a severe gastroenteritis that I thought was due to contaminated food I got at a local grocery.  I sent them an email.  I got a call from the manager of the store (part of a large regional chain).  He had looked up every bit of food I had bought from them in the past year.  His organization apparently had cooperative agreements with other vendors, and he also knew about other purchases I had made from other places.  In this case it worked to my advantage, because he had a record of me buying the food, and even retrieved a video of me doing it.  He then got in touch with the local health department and they got even *more* records on me, including contacts and other stuff.  I had no clue about how much I was being monitored on a routine basis.  It turned out to be a Norovirus and nothing to do with the food — multiple members of my extended family came down with it in the next week or so — but it was an education.

Which brings up another one of those privacy decisions.  Is it worth the ten bucks savings at the cash register to use the loyalty card?  When I go to Home Depot, is it worth the 10% discount to use my veteran status?  Sometimes I don’t care, and sometimes I do.  But, once again, it’s a matter of habit.  You may not care about being recorded when you buy radishes, but what about when you buy a pregnancy test or dildo or whatever?  If your habit is to accept surveillance, then you’ll forget when it matters.  The classic example are all these young women who take pictures of themselves, and forget they have sex toys sitting on the shelves behind them (see, for instance, https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/5275845/girls-selfies-sex-toys-photo/ ).
If your *habit* is to put the damn thing away every time you use it, then the likelihood of this happening is small.  If your *habit* is to leave it out, then the likelihood is high.

You can’t stop it completely, but you can make it just a *little* harder by developing good habits.

So, sit down, and just think about what you did today, and how you made it easier for people to record what you did.  Go to some of the privacy-oriented blogs and websites and read about what the hard-core folk are doing.  No, you are not going to go “off the grid.”  No, you are not going to move to a cave in Idaho.  No, you are not going to turn off all of your electronics and live in a Faraday cage.  You are not going to be one of “those people.”  But…  You can see the kinds of things they are concerned about, ask yourself how concerned you are, and what reasonable steps you can take to *lessen* the degree of surveillance.  You can change a few things.  You can turn off a *few* devices.  You can be aware.

I can’t tell you what you need to do, because I don’t live your life.  But here are some trivial first steps that I have taken, as much as for economic reasons as anything:

  • Pay cash for as much as possible.  Personally, I’ve found that the famous “envelope budgeting” is surprisingly practical, at least when combined with #2.
  • Buy local, and from small businesses.  Until a few months ago, I was an Amazon/Ebay kind of guy.  Now I’m not.  It takes extra work to buy some things locally, and it *will* cost a little more money.  But in my experience it hasn’t cost a *lot* more money, and it’s worth the 5-10% premium.  There have been some secondary benefits as well.  I have met some neat people and I have found some resources I didn’t know existed. This snowballs when combined with getting more active in local civic groups (which is a different issue for a different post).  For example, it turns out that a guy who has a small sawmill that makes wooden pallets also sells wood chip mulch  (a waste product for him) cheap — and he goes to my church.  I can get a pickup load of mulch for a song compared to the local box store.  A farmer down the road will sell me a pickup load of topsoil for my garden that he gets from cleaning out livestock stalls for $50 per pickup load, and now I have gotten to know him and his family a little.  I decided to buy some rain barrels.  I looked online and at the big box stores, and they had the standard made-in-China options.  But I went to the extra effort to look locally, and there were *two* small companies nearby that specialized in barrels and containers.  They catered mostly to the local food businesses and such, but they would make me rain barrels.  Moreover, they had other things that were even better — and because they had some expertise, they could point me in that direction, and help me in fabricating some things.  We’ve had the same experience buying from a local appliance store and a local hardware and building supply store.  I recently bought a couple of CB radios.  I could have bought them online, but decided to see if I could find a local CB radio store around town.  They were hard to find, but I did find one nestled in a nearby truck stop.  He was great, and taught me a lot about options I didn’t know existed (such as higher power 10 meter radios that require an easy-to-get ham license).  So, I bought a 60 watt radio rather than a 4 watt radio, and am joining a ham radio club to get my Technician license. Finally, I now go to truly local (not local instances of national chains) restaurants as much as possible.  It’s pretty amazing how accommodating a local eatery is if you become a semi-regular.  It’s worth breaking my “don’t go to the same place every day” rule a little for this.  We buy from a local bakery and I get breakfast from a local eatery.  Once they know you, the’ll have stuff ready and will make things just the way you want it.
  • If you must buy from a chain, change it up.  I used to go to a big fast food chain every day on the way to work and bought a breakfast sandwich and coffee.  Now I don’t, and if I decide to grab something on the way, I’ll go to a different place each time.  I won’t develop the *habit* of going to the same place at the same time all the time.
  • If you must buy online, change it up.  Don’t just go to Amazon or Walmart or Best Buy or whatever.  Amazon destroyed local business in part because people would go to the local store and look at merchandise, decide what they want, and then buy it online from Amazon at 5-10% less.  Well, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  Go to Amazon and look at what they offer.  Decide what you want and, if you can’t buy it locally, buy it or something similar from a different non-Amazon vendor.
  • Don’t use a “free” email address from a surveillance company.  Really?  You can’t afford $10 per year for a more private email service?  Are you kidding me?
  • Decrease your use of Facebook, Twitter, etc.  Look, I understand that you like the idea that that person you knew from high school but haven’t talked to in 20 years might see that meme you posted.  And I’m *not* telling you to give it up completely.  But remember that there are “friends” and there are friends.   The real friends will be your real friends regardless of the platform or method you use.  So, slowly, convince your real friends to use something else — Gab, Parler (if it comes back) or whatever.  Or start your own mailinglist.  Set up your own forum.  Whatever.  Then *incrementally* decrease your dependence on Facebook.  Your good friends on Facebook will respond just as well to a mailinglist, and might respond better and more openly if they aren’t open to being harrassed by the Facebook woke crowd.
  • Find other ways of spending your time.  One of the great tragedies of modern day is that folk spend so much time online and attached to technology.  Everybody knows it, but everybody is still glued to their screens.  Including me. Turn it off — not forever, and not for a long time.  But just a little.  Go outside.  Do a little gardening.  Go to a local pond and go fishing.  Go next door or invite your neighbors over for dinner.  Make love or talk to your spouse.  Whatever.  Just for 30 minutes or an hour.  Then, next week, try 35 mintues to and hour and  half.  You won’t miss it.  And the more time you spend untethered to surveillance devices, the less time you are under surveillance.
  • Get rid of home surveillance devices.  Ring, Siri, Alexa, etc are all designed to be surveillance devices.  Don’t invite them into your home.  You can push a few buttons to call someone instead of having Alexa listen to your private conversations and report them to Big Tech.
  • Try to do face to face or voice communications instead of texting.  Texts are forever.
  • Don’t carry your phone with you 24/7.  I’m older, so I remember when it was that people didn’t have a phone in their pocket 24/7.  It was wonderful.  The phone is a tool that you use.  You are not a tool that the phone uses.
  • Use a dumb phone.  I haven’t done this yet, but will in the near future.  I carry a laptop with me a lot, so there’s no real need for me to have all sorts of apps on my phone — almost all of which surveil me.  Use the dumbest phone that you can buy.  If you need a computer, use a laptop.   In my “incremental” mode of changing my life, in lieu of immediately ditching my phone, I am deleting any app I don’t find absolutely necessary.  I have to admit it — I am addicted to the navigation apps, and still have location and mapping on my phone when I go on trips.  But I’ve deleted most other things.  My next step is to turn off location when I’m going anywhere I know how to get to.  In the upcoming months, I will try to wean myself from the navigation apps altogether, and only use them when I’m truly lost.  But that’s in the future.  My goal is to turn the phone off most of the day and keep it in a Faraday bag so that it is not constantly calling the mother ship — and I will only use it during planned periods of the day.  But I’m not there yet.

 

While these are things I’ve done or am beginning to do, I’m not pushing particular steps.  I’m pushing a personal philosophy. Computer and communications privacy is a different post (you do use Brave or Tor, right?), but these are just some simple ideas.

If you sit down at the end of each day and review what you have done that day, I am sure that you will see a bunch of small things that you could do to *incrementally* increase your privacy *just a little*   You don’t have to radically change your lifestyle all at once.  Just small steps one day at a time.  And then, one year down the line, you will see your life changed for the better — or you get the money you paid to read this post back.  The biggest benefit I have seen is that I have gotten to know more people — which is difficult for an introvert like me.  It’s been a win on both the privacy and personal fronts.

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