Two problems of computer technology

My 2019 New Year’s resolution (along with getting into shape, of course) is to lock down my cyber-life. This is for two reasons.

First, threats to Internet security of all sorts have evolved beyond the reckoning of most of us, and if you have been paying attention, you wonder what you should really be doing in response. My phone was recently hacked and my Google ID reset. The threats can come from criminals, ideological foes and people with a vendetta or a mission (of whatever sort), foreign powers, and—of special concern for some of us—the ubiquitous, massively intrusive ministrations of the tech giants.

Second, the Silicon Valley behemoths have decided to move beyond mere moderation for objectively abusive behavior and shutting down (really obvious) terrorist organizations, to start engaging in viewpoint censorship of conservatives and libertarians. As a free speech libertarian who has lived online for much of my life since 1994, these developments are deeply concerning. The culprits include the so-called FAANG companies (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google), but to that list we must add YouTube, Twitter, and Microsoft. Many of us have been saying that we must take ourselves out of the hands of these networks—but exactly how to do so is evidently difficult. Still, I’m motivated to try.

At the root of both problems is simply that the fantastic efficiency and simplicity of computer technology is secured via our participation in networks and EULAs offered by massively rich and powerful corporations. Naturally, because what they offer is so valuable and because it is offered at reasonable prices (often, free), they can demand a great deal of information and control in exchange. This dynamic has led to us (most of us) shipping them boatloads of our data. That’s a honeypot for criminals, authoritarians, and marketers.

There is nothing we can do about it—except to stop participating. That’s why I want to kick the tech giants out of my life.

The threat to our privacy undermines some basic principles of the decentralized Internet that blossomed in the 90s and boomed in the 00s. The Establishment has taken over what was once a centerless, mostly privacy-respecting phenomenon of civil society, transforming it into something centralized, invasive, risky, and controlling. What was once the technology of personal autonomy has enabled—as never before—cybercrime, collectivization, mob rule, and censorship.

A plan

I don’t propose to try to lead a political fight. I just want to know what can do personally to mitigate my own risks.

I’m not sure of the complete list of things that I ought to do. I will examine some of these in more depth (in other blog posts, perhaps) before I take action, but others I have already implemented.

  1. Stop using Chrome. (Done.) Google collects massive amounts of information from us via their browser. The good news is that you don’t have to use it, if you’re one of the 62% of the people who do. I’ve been using Firefox; but I haven’t been happy about that. The Mozilla organization, which manages the browser, is evidently dominated by the Silicon Valley left; they forced out Brendan Eich, one of the creators of Firefox and the JavaScript programming language, for his political views. Frankly, I don’t trust them. I’ve switched to Eich’s newer browser, Brave. I’ve had a much better experience using it lately than I had when I first tried it a year or two ago and when it was still on the bleeding edge. Brave automatically blocks ads, trackers, third-party cookies, encrypts your connections—and, unlike Google, they don’t have a profile about you. It’s quite good and a pleasure to use. There might be a few rare issues (maybe connected with JavaScript), but when I suspect there’s a problem with the browser, I try whatever I’m trying to do in Firefox, which is now my fallback. There’s absolutely no need to use Chrome for anything but testing, and that’s only if you’re in Web development. By the way, the Brave iOS app is really nice, too.
  2. Stop using Google Search (when possible). (Done.) I understand that sometimes, getting the right answer requires that you use Google, because it does, generally, give the best search results. But I get surprisingly good results from DuckDuckGo, which I’ve been using for quite a while now. Like Brave and unlike Google, DuckDuckGo doesn’t track you and respects your privacy. You’re not the product. It is easy to go to your browser’s Settings page and switch.
  3. Stop using gmail. (Done.) This was harder, and figuring out and executing the logistics of it was a chore—it involved changing all the accounts, especially the important accounts, that use my gmail address—but I’m totally committed to taking this step. I had wanted to do this for a while, but the sheer number of hours it was going to take (and did take) to make the necessary changes was daunting. Besides, I was tired of switching email addresses. I want to have one email address for the rest of my life. My new email address resides at sanger.io, a domain that my family will be able to use. Here’s how I chose an email hosting service to replace Gmail. And here’s how I set up private email hosting for my family.
  4. Start using (better) password management software. And never use another social login again. (Done.) If you’re one of those people who uses the same password for everything, especially if it’s a simple password, you’re a fool and you need to stop. But if you’re going to maintain a zillion different passwords for a zillion different sites, how? Password management software. I’ve been using the free, open source KeePass, which is secure and it works, but it doesn’t integrate well with browsers, or let me save my password date securely in the cloud (or maybe better, on the blockchain). So I’m going to get a better password manager and set it up on all my devices. This is an essential to locking down my cyber-life. One of the ways Facebook, LinkedIn, et al. insinuate themselves in our cyber-lives is by giving us an easy way to log in to other sites. But that makes it easier for them to track us everywhere. Well, if you install a decent password manager, then you don’t have to depend on social login services. Just skip them and use the omnipresent “log in with email” option every time. Your password manager will make it even easier than social login systems did. UPDATE: I switched to EnPass and told browsers to stop tracking my passwords. Read more.
  5. Stop using iCloud to sync your iPhone data with your desktop and laptop data; replace it with wi-fi sync. (Done.) If you must use a smartphone, and if (like mine) it’s an iPhone, then at least stop putting all your precious data on Apple servers, i.e., on iCloud. It’s very easy to do. After you do that, you can go tell iTunes to sync your contacts, calendars, and other information via wi-fi; here’s how.
  6. Take control of my contact and friend lists. I’ve been giving Google, Apple, and Microsoft too much authority to manage my contacts for me, and I’ve shared my Facebook and other friends lists too much. I’m not sure I want these contacts knowing my contacts and friends, period. I don’t know what they’re doing with the information, or who they’re sharing it with, really. Besides, if my friends play fast and loose with privacy settings, my privacy can suffer—and vice-versa. So I’m going to start maintaining my own contacts, thanks very much, and delete the lists I’ve given to Google and Microsoft. I’m glad I’ve already stopped putting this information on iCloud.
  7. Stop using gcal. I just don’t trust Google with this information, and frankly, gcal isn’t all that. I mean, it’s OK. The only inconvenience is that I’m going to have to tell my workmates I don’t use it, but that they should put my name in without my email address, and I’ll add the appointment to my own calendar. This will involve installing a calendar app on my phone (I don’t want to keep using Apple’s) and figuring out how to sync my calendar data without the cloud, so I still have up-to-date copies of on all my devices.
  8. Switch to Linux. (In progress.) I’ve been using a Linux (Ubuntu) virtual machine for programming (and a fair bit of other stuff) for a while. Linux is stable and usable for most purposes, and while it still has issues of one sort or another, on balance those issues aren’t nearly as severe as those associated with using products by Microsoft and Apple. When necessary, I can use my Mac laptop and will continue to maintain a Windows partition, e.g., for when I need to use Camtasia. But I’ll soon (finally) be putting Ubuntu on a partition on my workstation and switching to that as my main work environment. Linux is generally more secure, gives the user more control, and most importantly does not have a giant multinational corporation behind it that wants to take and share your information.
  9. Nail down a backup plan. (In progress.) If you’re going to avoid using so much centralized and cloud software, you’ve got to think not just about security but about backing up your data. I’ve got a monster of a backup drive, as well as backup software and knowledge of how to use it, but what I don’t have are excellent habits to use this stuff regularly. I don’t even have regularly-scheduled backups, which I really should do. But really getting my old files organized, especially if I want to keep copies of my old emails instead of relying on frickin’ Google to do it—and doubly so if I want to download my old gmail stuff, or even (gasp) not use a cloud storage service at all.
  10. Stop using cloud storage. “Now,” you’re going to tell me, “you’re getting unreasonable. This is out of hand. Not back up to iCloud, Google Drive, DropBox, Box, or OneDrive? Not have the convenience of having the same files on all my machines equally available? Are you crazy?” I’m not crazy. You might not realize what is now possible without the cloud. If you’re serious about this privacy stuff and you really don’t trust big tech anymore—I sure don’t—then yeah. This is necessary too. One option is Resilio Sync, moving files between your devices via deeply encrypted networks (via a modified version of the BitTorrent protocol), with the files never landing anywhere but on your devices. Another option is to use a NAS (network attached storage device), which is basically your very own cloud server that only you can access, but you can access it from anywhere via an encrypted Internet connection.
  11. Nail down a social media use policy. Maybe quit some for good, really this time. (In progress.) I’m extremely ambivalent about my ongoing use of social media. I took a break for over a month (which was nice), but I decided that it is too important for my career to be plugged in to the most common networks. If I’m going to use them, I feel like I need to create a set of rules for myself to follow—so I don’t get sucked back in. I also want to reconsider how I might use alternative social networks, like Gab (which has problems), and social media tools that make it easy both to post and to keep an easily-accessible archive of my posts. One of my biggest problems with all social media networks is that they make it extremely difficult to download and control your own friggin’ data—how dare they. Well, there are tools to take care of that…
  12. Study and make use of website/service/device privacy options. (In progress.) Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., all have privacy policies and options available to the user. It is time that I studied and regularly reviewed them (as I have done only with Facebook and a bit with Google), and put shields up to maximum.
  13. Also study the privacy of other categories of data. Banking data, health data, travel data (via Google, Apple, Uber, Yelp, etc.), shopping data (Amazon, etc.)—it all has unique vulnerabilities that is important to be aware of. I’m not sure I’ve done all I can to lock it down. So I want to do that.
  14. Subscribe to a VPN? Websites can still get quite a bit of info about you from your IP address and by listening in on any data that happens to be unencrypted via your web connection. VPNs solve those problems by making your connection to the Internet anonymous. The big problem with VPNs, and the reason I probably won’t do this, is that they slow down your Internet connection. They also add new complexity to your life (e.g., if you get the wrong VPN, you might not be able to connect to some services, like Netflix, through the VPN). But it’s a great step to take if you’re serious about privacy, if you can get around or handle the slowness problem. A nice fallback is the built-in private windows in Brave that are run on the Tor network, which operates on a similar principle to VPNs.
  15. Figure out how to change my passwords regularly, maybe. I might want to make a list of all my important passwords and change them quarterly everywhere, as a sort of cyber-hygiene. Why don’t we make a practice of this? Because it’s a pain in the ass and most people don’t know how to use password management software, that’s why. Besides, security experts actually discourage regular password changing, but that’s mainly because most people are bad at making and tracking secure passwords. Well, if you use password managers, that part isn’t so hard. But it’s also because we really don’t have a realistic plan to do it. Well, I’m going to think hard about making one and, maybe, try to follow it, making use of whatever automated tools are available (such as this).
  16. Get identity theft protection. (Done.) After my phone was hacked, I finally did something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time—subscribe to an identity theft protection service. The one I use is LifeLock, and so far it seems to be quite good. If you don’t know or care about identity theft, that’s probably because you’ve never seen weird charges pop up on your card, or had your card frozen by your bank, or whatever. LifeLock doesn’t prevent these issues by itself, but it does make it a lot easier to deal with them if they happen.

What have I left out?

Are you going to join me in this push toward greater privacy and autonomy? Let me know—or, of course, you can keep it to yourself.