Vendors must start adding physical on/off switches to devices that can spy on us

Where's my webcam's off switch?

Have you ever noticed that your webcam doesn't have an "off" switch? I looked on Amazon, and I couldn't find any webcams for sale that had a simple on/off switch. When I thought I found one, but it turned out just to have a light that turns on when the camera is in use, and off when not—not a physical switch you can press or slide.

The "clever" solution is supposed to be webcam covers (something Mark Zuckerberg had a hand in popularizing); you can even get a webcam (or a laptop) with such a cover built in. How convenient! I've used tape, which works fine.

But a cover doesn't cover up the microphone, which could be turned on without your knowledge. Oh, you think that's impossible? Here are some handy instructions. Or maybe you'll say you're not paranoid—it's not a serious problem? Don't be so naive, said the FBI seven years ago (they're worried about predators stalking children), and the Atlantic, and USA Today more recently. The issue isn't going away. With hacking skills growing more common, the problem has surely grown, if anything, more dire.

Another "clever" solution is to use a software off switch, like this (for Windows). But it simply turns your webcam's driver on and off. Of course, it's not too hard for a sufficiently skilled hacker to turn your driver back on and start recording you without your knowledge.

For USB devices, you can use a USB off switch like this, which seems like a good idea; but it doesn't solve the problem for devices with built-in cameras and microphones like laptops and smart phones.

The humble "off" switch is now high technology. It is a significant selling point for the single device that I could find that comes equipped with one.

Do any computer cameras with "off" switches (not just covers) exist? They seem to be very rare at best, but I was able to find one: the company building a Linux phone, Purism, has a whole page devoted to the joys and wonders of its off switch—which is kind of ridiculous, if you think about it. The humble "off" switch is now high technology. It is a significant selling point for the single device that I could find that comes equipped with one.

(By the way, I have absolutely no relationship to Purism. I write about them because their focus is privacy and I've been writing a lot about privacy.)

The kill switch on Purism's Librem laptop (c) Purism 2019

Your phone has the same problem, you know

Tape over the webcam? Covers to disable the functionality we paid for? Why on earth do we go to these lengths when hardware vendors could simply sell their products with off switches? The more I think about it, the more I find it utterly bizarre. Don't these companies care?

I've just been talking about webcams, but let's talk about the really horrible spy devices: your smart phone. Oh, your Android phone can't be hacked? Here are some handy video instructions, viewed over 300,000 times and upvoted 1,100 times. Surely not your iPhone? Don't be so confident; hackers are very creative, as (for example) the Daily Mail has reported, and besides, Apple is proud of its patent allowing remote control of iPhone cameras.

Besides, it's been known since at least 2014 that the NSA had developed, as early as 2008, software to remotely access anybody's phone.

And yet there isn't a hardware off switch for your phone's camera and microphone, short of turning the device entirely off (but there's an app to turn the camera off). A device equipped with a hardware "off" switch for the camera and microphone isn't yet on the market, as far as I know. Purism is making one.

It's not just your webcam and your phone that you need to worry about, by the way. Do you have a smart speaker? At least you can mute Amazon Echo's microphone, and it's apparently a hardware switch, too, so well done, Jeff Bezos. That's important, if true, because it prevents software exploits. I found no word on whether Google Home's and Apple HomePod's mute buttons are hardware switches; maybe not. How about a surveillance or doorbell camera? How about your smart TV? Those can be hacked too, of course, and some of them are always listening. Wouldn't it be nice to have the peace of mind that they aren't listening to you when you're not using the TV?

In short, what if you want to turn these devices' cameras and microphones off sometimes, for some perfectly legitimate reason? Can you do so in a trustworthy, hardware-based way? In most cases, for most devices, the answer is No.

Let's demand that hardware vendors build hardware "off" switches

It's almost as if the vendors of common, must-have devices want to make it possible to spy on us. An enterprising journalist should ask why they don't make such switches. They certainly have deliberately made it hard for us to stop being spied upon—even though we're their customers. Think about that. We're their bread and butter, and we're increasingly and rightly concerned about our security. Yet they keep selling us these insecure devices. That's just weird, isn't it? What the hell is going on?

But this, you might say, is both paranoid and unfair. Surely the vendors don't intend to spy on you. Why would they add an off switch when nobody will turn your camera and microphone on without your consent?

But, as I already said, it's a hard, cold fact that hackers and government and corporate spies can and sometimes do turn our cameras and microphones on without our consent. This isn't controversial and, for anybody who is slightly plugged-in, shouldn't be surprising. Security experts have known that, for many years, regardless of the intentions of hardware vendors like Logitech and Apple and large software vendors like Skype and Snapchat, the hardware, firmware, and software that run our devices just are susceptible to hacking. It's just a fact, and we are right to be concerned. So these companies are responsible for building and selling insecure systems. At a minimum, they could be made significantly more secure with a tiny bit of hardware: the humble "off" switch.

If your webcam, or your phone, or any other device with an Internet-connected camera or microphone (think about how many you own) has ever been hacked, these companies are partly to blame if it was always-on by design. They have a duty to worry about how their products make their users less secure. They haven't been doing this duty.

It starts with us. We the consumers need to care more about our privacy and security. We're not powerless here. In fact, we could demand that they give us an off switch.

I think we consumers should demand that webcams, smart phones, smart speakers, and laptop cameras and microphones—and any other devices with cameras and microphones that are connected to the Internet—be built with hardware "off" switches that make it impossible for the camera and microphone to be operated.

Do you agree?


How I chose a NAS

A network-attached storage (NAS) device is your own Internet server device. It's your very own cloud! I decided to get one for my own reasons. But which, and configured how, exactly? Here's what I came up with for myself.


A NAS server (credit to Bin im Garten on Wikimedia Commons, CC by-sa 3.0)

After dropping Dropbox, and then ditching Resilio Sync, I decided to get a NAS. To pull this off, it seemed to me I had to answer the following questions:

  1. Type of server. Should I roll my own personal server using Nextcloud (or OwnCloud; but probably Nextcloud) on Linux, with a regular web server (device/box/CPU), or get a NAS server instead?
  2. Server software. Assuming the actual box I purchase is a NAS, should I go with the proprietary software installed on the box (of any kind), or install Nextcloud and plan to use those features?
  3. NAS vendor. There are actually two-closely related questions here. (a) Which brand of NAS box should I purchase if I do decide to use proprietary server software for the NAS? (b) Which proprietary server software do I prefer, regardless of the box? It is the combination of the two questions that would determine which vendor I'd purchase from.
  4. RAID/drive configuration. This also has two closely-related questions. (a) What RAID configuration should I plan to set up? (b) How many bays should I plan to get? In other words, how many drives will the server have, and how will they function together to serve as automatic backup or redundancy?
  5. Beefiness. How much machine do I need?
  6. Drives. Which drives should I put into the NAS bays?

Answering these questions helped me decide which box I would purchase. But because these are some difficult-sounding and (to me) unfamiliar questions, I decided first to get to the nut of the issue. After all, I did already know why I wanted a NAS and what some of my requirements were.

I wanted a NAS (as I said) first and foremost as a replacement for Dropbox. I actually didn't have very much data in Dropbox; I had more (over 500 GB) on my hard drive, backed up to an external drive. If I felt I more confident about my data storage, backup, and long-term continuation strategies, I might digitize (or pay a kid to) a hell of a lot more of my data. (10 GB per DVD/Blu-Ray at ~200? disks = 2 TB. Could be doable!) So it might be a good idea to err on the side of lots of space.

But the thing that pushed me to a NAS solution, over syncing all my devices directly such as Resilio accomplishes, is the availability of lots of awesome personal cloud software, for things like calendar, contacts, and who knows, maybe even email. (I finally called my current mail hosting provider. They don't encrypt my mail on their servers. They can quite easily read my mail. I don't think they do, but I have to trust them. Sucks to have to trust them. But I will probably not try hosting my own email; that's really hard to get right.) Since Synology has so much decent software (so it appears; check out their packages list and demo), that eventually inclined me toward them. Any NAS should also let you install and run Nextcloud, which is open source and has a boatload of similar free software for your personal home server.

Now, if I was going to put mission-critical things like calendars (which need to be up-to-date!) and shared/collaborative documents on this server, then I should also have a sufficiently beefy and fast machine. (I also upgraded my Internet connection to the fastest home connection.) One of the differences between Synology and QNAS is that the latter is supposed to be stronger on hardware specs but weaker on software functionality (maybe). That was bothersome, because I wanted both to be awesome.

All right then—how did I answer the questions?

Type of server

Question: Should I roll my own personal server using Nextcloud (or OwnCloud; but probably Nextcloud) on Linux, with a regular web server (device/box/CPU), or get a NAS device instead?

This one was easy to dispatch. It looked to me as if, supposing I tried to set up my own server, then running Nextcloud on it wouldn't be the hard part; running a good old-fashioned server would be. I'd have to make time to learn good old-fashioned server administration, which would be hard even if I ran FreeNAS, an open source operating system for self-built NASes. And even if I wanted to do that (server administration would be a cool skill to have), if I don't have to learn all that, because NASes solve all these problems for me, then I don't wanna.

Now, if I were still a poor student or a full time developer/engineer, maybe I'd be rolling my own. But since I can afford to let someone else do all the hard server setup work, I reasoned, I will.

So, I said, forget that noise. It's a NAS for me, period.

Server software

Question: Assuming the actual box I purchase is a NAS, should I go with the proprietary software installed on the box (of any kind), or install Nextcloud and plan to use those features?

When I first wrote the above questions, I was laboring under the false assumption that I would have to choose between the Nextcloud suite of server applications and whatever Synology or QNAP offered. But this is false. You can run both on the same NAS!

There are a number of guides online to installing Nextcloud on Synology and on QNAP. So if I want the functionality that Nextcloud offers, because Synology, QNAP, or any other NAS doesn't cut the mustard, then I can always do that.

My biggest misgiving, to be honest, is that companies like Synology and QNAP don't always seem to have the user's privacy foremost in mind, but they're better than most. (I found this discussion of the issue useful.) Certain apps and support might require that the vendor will have some access to your data. But this is the price you pay for not using free software; as far as I know, the only way to absolutely guarantee the privacy of your information is if you enjoy total ownership over your hardware and software. But in this case, it involves developing skills (server administration) that I just don't have time for these days. So I'll just have to be careful and conscientious in what information I give to the vendor, what I install, what privacy issues it has, etc.

Besides, I figured, I could always install and run NextCloud on the device, and that's open source. So maybe was OK.

As this was a question I didn't have to answer yet, I decided to kick it down the road.

NAS vendor

Question: There are actually two-closely related questions here. (a) Which brand of NAS box should I purchase if I do decide to use proprietary server software for the NAS? (b) Which proprietary server software do I prefer, regardless of the box? It is the combination of the two questions that would determine which vendor I'd purchase from.

This was the first question that I couldn't quickly gloss over. Given that I knew I'd be buying a NAS, it followed that I'd be buying a machine that is already set up with its own operating system and, in the cases I'm most interested in, support for the suite of cloud apps I'm after (actually pure Linux NAS systems are available, but strangely expensive).

I had a few desiderata here:

  • Must have strong privacy and security policies and practices. The biggest reason to get a NAS, for me, is to avoid the privacy and security issues associated with hosting my data in a shared public cloud like Dropbox. So the operating system had better not phone home, the way Windows and Mac do, and the software should generally have strong privacy practices. Strong plus if data encryption features and two-factor authentication are built in and automatic or easy to implement.
  • Must be fast and powerful enough for daily use. I'm not sure how powerful it has to be, and it certainly depends on my Internet connection. But the bottom line is that syncing should not take forever, I shouldn't have to constantly wait for things like calendar entries to update, chat apps shouldn't be laggy, photos should upload and download reasonably fast so my family and I can use the server, etc.
  • Software in the ecosystem must be feature-rich and easy-to-use. Assuming it makes sense to make generalizations about the software ecosystem of a vendor, the software should be advanced and "ready for prime time," or as much as possible. For example, the syncing software should enable me to restore old versions that were mistakenly deleted. I should be able to share files with fine-grained permissions. The office collaboration apps (Google Docs/Sheets replacement) should offer real-time updating without significant edit conflicts. Updating the system should be automatic, i.e., as easy as it is to update Ubuntu (more or less automatic, if that's what I want, as it happens to be).
  • Prefer good reputation and reviews. Specs count for a lot, but so do reviews and reputation.

There are, essentially, two top NAS vendors that everybody talks about: Synology and QNAP. There are other vendors, to be sure, including (not a complete list) Asustor, TerraMaster, Netgear, and WD. But Synology and QNAP seem to be the gold standard, and since I had no desire to spend many hours or days looking over the differences between all the others, I initially narrowed down my choice to these two.

In my travels around the Internet, I found that Synology is marketed and thought of as being a home solution for the average reasonably technical user—or perhaps just for anybody who values UX highly, regardless of skill level. (I don't really know.) It apparently has an emphasis on simplicity and usability—the demo linked above gives great evidence of that—but sometimes (so I read) at the expense of configurability or choice. Synology puts more money into software than hardware, according to one prolific NAS reviewer; for the same money, a Synology box has more usable software but less satisfying hardware stats and overall speed than QNAP.

QNAP is sometimes portrayed as being more of a solution for more technical users, for whatever that's worth. While both ecosystems are based on Linux (and therefore presumably very configurable at some level), QNAP is again reputedly more configurable and speedier. It also has more apps available—but the apps are also sometimes a bit dodgier, or so I read. All of that sounds like Linux to me, frankly; but QNAP is actually more often compared to Windows and Android. Whatever, such comparisons are surely of limited value.

On this limited basis, being on the techier side who likes configurability, I was initially inclined toward QNAP. But on second and third thoughts, I heard a lot of breathless praise for Synology and the quality of its apps, including from some very technical people. And after all, I really care about software quality. Synology advocates say that its software "just works"—hugely important. A random person on Reddit replied to me saying, "From personal experience I run both Synology and QNAP devices and have done for several years. Synology has more robust software, generally more stable and less security flaws. QNAP provides faster hardware for the same money."

Reddit commenters seem to be fairly evenly divided between the brands, and machines from both brands are similarly rated 4 to 4.5 stars on Amazon.

I decided in the end to go with Synology. Usability is key. But I'd probably be about as happy with QNAP.

RAID/drive configuration

Question: This also has two closely-related questions. (a) What RAID configuration should I plan to set up? (b) How many bays should I plan to get? In other words, how many drives will the server have, and how will they function together to serve as automatic backup or redundancy?

A few different technical observers have said that one should err on the side of many bays, and that two is a definite non-starter. Why? Because two bays won't give you enough space unless you use a no-RAID setup, and part of the beauty of a NAS is that it has RAID support built in. (RAID, in case you didn't know, is an acronym for "Redundant Array of Independent Disks," and it is the practice of mirroring, and otherwise intelligently managing, data across several disks. It isn't the same as backup, but it can save you from losing data, so it can be a useful part of an overall backup plan.)

On the other hand, I don't have that much data, to be honest. Since Synology is expandable, I didn't go crazy and get a hell of a lot more space than I need—just a lot more than I need. For my personal, family, and modest business needs, I decided to get a five-bay device (it would have been four bays, but a five-bay device had double the RAM) and put three 2 TB drives in it. According to Synology's RAID calculator, this gives me something less than 4 TB of usable space, which is a lot for me. If I really wanted to rip all my movies, I'd have more than enough room. I can always add more drives and increase the size of the drives, too.

As far as which RAID configuration to use, since I've decided to go with Synology, I didn't even need to think about which kind to use: I just went with the cool "Synology Hybrid Raid" (SHR) setup. I don't understand it very well myself, except that it's supposed to be better than traditional RAID configurations for most uses.

Beefiness

Question: How much machine do I need?

When I sat down to figure out "how much machine I need," assuming I was going to get a Synology with four (or five) bays, I asked the Synology subreddit for help and the respondents generally said to just go ahead and get the beefiest four-bay machine. It was well within my price range and good value for the money, a couple people said. I asked a related question on r/HomeServer, where the DIY geeks tried but failed to make me feel guilty for not building my own server. (I did learn that I should choose my forums more carefully, though; and that, indeed, I might want to build my own server eventually, or have my son do it for me.)

A higher-end machine seemed necessary if I wanted to support (a) several simultaneous connections, (b) non-laggy real-time collaborative editing, (c) video streaming (seems like a good idea if the device is capable of it), (d) several apps/server processes running simultaneously.

So I decided to get the option with the most powerful processor (quad core Intel) and most RAM without actually voiding the warranty, and that ended up being this one.

Drives

Almost done! Last question: Which drives should I put into the NAS bays?

I have absolutely nothing intelligent to say on this one. I'll just share my conclusions. There are two main brands and models touted for NAS devices: Seagate IronWolf and Western Digital Red. Mostly because someone at Micro Center recommended them, I went with the SeaGate IronWolf. You can also choose the slower or faster versions; I got the faster-rated "Pro" version because disk access speed might actually improve the speed of response from my NAS when I'm out and about.

Conclusion

Wish me luck. The NAS and drives should arrive next week, and then I'll look forward to installing them on my network. I'll be getting a new router, too. (You should have a fast, secure, and modern router for a NAS, I gather, but I won't bore you with my ruminations on that.) All of that shouldn't take long. Rather longer will be the installation of the many and various NAS apps (and corresponding mobile apps) I'll need, along with the upgrading of my contacts, calendar, and of course my file sync program. The longest part of that process will probably be the actual copying of data from my computer's drives to the NAS. Hopefully, I won't have too much trouble converting my data folders, now associated with Resilio Sync (and earlier, with Dropbox) to whatever the Synology app I use on my computers and phone.

Another necessary step will be to do setup a zero-knowledge cloud backup—one that is strictly a backup, with no sync, no file access, no nothing but encrypted data storage. Should be fairly cheap (much cheaper than syncing services like Dropbox).

And another thing: I'll have to really lock down the NAS, since so much important info will be on it. Fortunately, Synology does have a lot of tools for doing that.

And another: I might want to route all outbound traffic from my NAS through a VPN. That's possible. (You can also use the NAS itself as a VPN node, but I'm not sure why, if you've already got a VPN to use; maybe a reader can tell me.)

What about the fun stuff? Well, in the very near future, I look forward to being able to do all this:

  • Delete all Google Docs I own; host my own real time collaborative documents. All of the Google Docs and Sheets I own, I'm moving to the corresponding Synology app on my own server. As far as I've been able to ascertain, the functionality is pretty much identical. I can't necessarily expect my work colleagues to stop using Google Docs, so I won't be able to rid myself of my Google account completely, but I will be able to get rid of most of my dependency on it. (There's still YouTube, though. I'm still all in, there.) But the cool part of course is that the documents I edit in real time will live right there on my own machines, in a private network I can open up to whomever I want.
  • Delete Google contacts. Completely delete all my contacts from Google, because I'll have them in a single central copy on my NAS (but with redundant copies on my devices).
  • Delete Gmail archive and set up Gmail vacation message. Since that was the main thing I was waiting for before rendering my Gmail account nonfunctional, I'll then make sure I have a local copy of all my Gmail archive, then delete all my old mails from Google servers. Then, finally, set up a "email me at my new address" on Gmail, something I've sort of been putting off until getting completely ready to separate myself from Gmail (not just my ongoing personal mail use, but all data archives, too).
  • Move Gcal data to Synology Calendar. I'm still using Gcal because I haven't had a privacy-respecting cloud solution. Soon, I will. Finally I'll be telling my colleagues to put my appointments invites on my own calendar on nas.sanger.io or—why not—just send me a mail and I'll add it myself. We've gotten so used to dealing with automatic invites that we've forgotten how stupid simple adding an appointment is by hand yourself. Hardly any time at all.
  • Stop using Slack for family chatting; start using chatting on our family server. Even if Papa is on the other side of the world, we'll be able to connect to each other via the same server that's right at home. My wife won't worry (as she does) that someone at Slack (or some hacker) is watching over our shoulders, since the whole encrypted chat takes place via our own server.
  • Keep my password manager datafiles in sync. I've had trouble with this ever since switching to Resilio and trying to use a single datafile shared by all instances. Instead, now I'll be able to use Synology's (and Enpass's) support for the WebDAV standard to keep the datafiles in sync. Yay!
  • Share pix with family like Dropbox, listen to streaming music, audiobooks, and podcasts like Pandora, and watch ripped streaming videos from anywhere like Netflix. Seriously, Synology even designed their video player's UX like Netflix's. So if I do decide to rip all those DVDs, I'll be able to watch videos that were formerly on a shelf in my living room while I'm unwinding after a speech far, far away. We can also stream the videos through the NAS straight to the TV, which is also cool. After this, I might not buy any more physical disks; I might just go ahead and buy digital all the way and stream stuff, assuming I don't have to deal with DRM headaches.
  • Maybe set up a Mastodon instance. That would be a great option, previously not available to me (or, not entirely controlled by me), for a new social media experiment I can use with my former Facebook friends.
  • Maybe get some security cameras. I wouldn't have done it before for the simple reason that I don't want the data online, as it would be. But if I can host the data myself, maybe it's OK.

Of course, there's a huge caveat: if it works as advertised. We'll see!


Cloud smackdown: NAS vs. Resilio Sync vs. Zero-Knowledge Cloud!

In my ongoing effort to lock down my cyber-life, I jettisoned Dropbox three weeks ago, and I'm quite happy I did.

But I'm not done with the reconfiguration. So, if you have the patience and credulity, you may listen in while an amateur deliberates about the choices...

People more expert about this stuff than I am: please review my various claims here for accuracy. I must thank a gentleman who gave excellent feedback and corrections on my VPN post from a month ago.

Why Resilio Sync isn't working out for me

As I explained in an update, the solution I went with—Resilio Sync plus backup to an external drive—had some drawbacks that were unexpectedly annoying. Foremost among these is the fact that Sync isn't a "set it and forget it" technology, i.e., you have to think about and maintain the state of your syncitude, since your devices have to be on at the same time (and Sync has to be working on both/all of them). Also annoying is having to rely heavily on traditional backup, because if God forbid you should delete something inadvertently, your deletion will propagate among your devices (if they're all on at the same time—entirely possible). I've had to use Dropbox's "restore" feature before; I figure it's only so long before I have to restore something from my backup, and what happens if my backup program's restore feature is screwed up or very hard to use? Oy.

These problems are annoying, but not horrible. However, I definitively decided that I had made the wrong choice when I discovered that Sync has no easy way (that I can find) to support the syncing of contacts, passwords, calendars, bookmarks, and text editor settings. Sure, you can sync a data file, but insofar as this same data file (i.e., identical copies of it) must interact correctly with software on each of your systems, then unless the software is specially and carefully written to work with an independent datafile that works the same on all your systems (I think Sublime Text is OK here), you should let your local copy of the software update its own copy of its datafile. This is one of those technical issues that sounds very abstruse, but which poses very real, concrete problems when the rubber meets the road.

The problem, essentially, is that you need to let your software (browser, password manager, calendar, or text editor) handle its own syncing via the cloud. There are two ways in which software can do this for you: (1) you use a cloud you pay for, like Dropbox (e.g., Enpass supports Dropbox syncing), or (2) you use the software vendor's cloud/server, as email syncs via IMAP with your mail host, which you must trust, or as Chrome and Firefox do with bookmarks, and as Apple does with your contacts and calendar. Boo! Hiss! I'd rather handle this myself and avoid the privacy/security risks, if I can.

Your very own cloud server: a NAS

Well...having decided I'm going back to the drawing board on a cloud/device syncing solution, I recalled that NAS devices solve this general problem very neatly. NAS means "network-attached storage," and it means basically your very own personal cloud server. It's an actual box that lives in your home or office, but it's also on the Internet, so you can access it from anywhere. It's not a traditional desktop computer; it's a server. With a NAS, when you sync your devices, they don't all have to be on, because they sync via the NAS, which is always on (but don't worry, it doesn't use much energy). If you ever have to restore your files, the NAS makes it easy without the trouble or worry of having to interact with fiddly backup software. In other words, "file restoration" is built in to the NAS's syncing software—an "undo" button for inadvertent deletion.

NASes (especially the Synology brand) come with a whole raft of software for syncing particular types of data that work with different apps, like calendars (oh joy! Finally, a plausible replacement for Gcal!), address books, passwords (using WebDAV), and more. This is a decided advantage over Resilio Sync, which simply doesn't offer such solutions.

NAS devices also support cloud-based collaborative document editing—basically, they replace Google Docs. It's insane what a NAS can do for you: not just syncing documents and data, not just collaborative document editing, but also (these are all available Synology packages/apps)

  • calendar (replaces Gcal and Apple calendar via iCloud)
  • contacts/address book (CardDav; replaces various)
  • chat (replaces Facebook Messenger, Slack, and Telegram; includes end-to-end encryption)
  • your own frickin' mail server if you're brave enough
  • photo sharing (replaces Instagram, Facebook, or whatever you use to share pictures with your family and friends)
  • Discourse (host your own web forum)
  • Apache and support for various programming languages like Java, Node.js, PHP, Ruby, as well as databases; i.e., make your NAS an actual, fully-functional web server
  • Redmine (project management and ticketing system; replaces Zendesk, Pivotal Tracker, Jira, Trello, Asana)
  • multiple options for blog, CMS, and wiki systems
  • video hosting and podcasting
  • VPN (i.e., turn your NAS into a VPN node)
  • Git and Git Server (put your code on your own Git server instead of using Github or Gitlab; handy if you have totally private projects)
  • built-in backup for the NAS

In short, just think of all the computing functions you farm out to the Internet just because you want something "always available from anywhere using a brower." Well, pretty much all of those services can be had via your own NAS, and a sizeable company (Synology) supports the software.

Now, I'm not saying these apps are as good as the ones available to you from the professionals. Your NAS is not likely to be as fast or as reliable as your current web host. But (a) it's yours, and (b) you don't have to worry about the prying eyes of corporate workers, or about hackers attacking the big corporate data honeypots (they might take a crack at your NAS if they think its defenses are poor, though).

Wait, what about zero-knowledge cloud services?

Oh, you thought I had forgotten about zero-knowledge cloud services, like Sync.com, Spider Oak, Pcloud (my son threatened to use this one himself because he didn't like Resilio Sync), and others?

I started out thinking these were good options, but in retrospect I see they don't hold a candle to NASes. They specialize in being always-on, reliable, and secure cloud sync/backup options. And that's good. The problem, however, is that there are an awful lot of cloud services we rely on that put you and your data in the same boat as Dropbox. And even if you don't need to host your own website or your own mail server, which is admittedly going a bit far, there are very sound reasons at least to want to host your own contacts, passwords, calendar, and so on.

I looked at the features offered by Sync.com, Spider Oak, and Pcloud, and while they seem to nail the traditional Dropbox feature set (which is good!), they don't support the other cloud features I'm anxious to have. One of the next items on my lock-down "to do" list is to finally replace Gcal and Apple Contacts, and to delete my calendar and contacts from Google. I just hate the idea of leaving these problems unsolved. My ambition is to completely divorce my data and habits from Google, Apple, and Microsoft products. I don't see how I can do that without either trusting somebody else, or running my own server. Since zero-knowledge cloud services are so underdeveloped at present—and if I were an investor, I'd put money into that, as it strikes me as a potentially huge growth industry—the only option left is a NAS.

Some final reasonable considerations

Let's take a step back and get reasonable, now.

What is the main concern motivating these deliberations? Not just concern about privacy, but a refusal to entrust sensitive information to corporations that are, essentially, black boxes to me. But maybe I can just accept some risk here. Isn't that reasonable?

Well, I wouldn't be where I am if I was prepared to answer "yes. " My sense of the thing is that having massive amounts of valuable data sitting right in their servers ends up being too much of a temptation to a lot of companies, and they can craft and interpret their privacy policies in a clever enough way to escape much legal risk. And even if I could trust their privacy practices, the many and growing number of security breaches means my data isn't safe.

I also don't like the direction that both government surveillance and authoritarian, paternalistic corporate cultures are moving in; while I don't expect the secret police to bust down the door anytime soon, or the remaining Big Tech companies I have relationships with to cut me off, it's a definite plus to cut ties with these institutions which have become so corrupt.

I admit my motivations are partly (perhaps only a small part) political. I'd like to lead a revitalized, individualistic civil society in a better direction, help support the ecosystem of privacy-respecting companies, and poke snoops, spooks, hackers, and authoritarians in the eye.

All that said, I don't expect others to think about this the way I do. We all have our paths to walk.

As for myself, I've concluded I will get a NAS after all. Wish me luck with the installation and configuration!


Zuckerberg Is Wrong: Don't Regulate Our Content

Last Sunday, Mark Zuckerberg made another Facebook strategy post. (This is his second major policy post in as many months. I responded to his March 6 missive as well.) Unsurprisingly, it was a disaster.

I want to shake him by his lapels and say, "Mark! Mark! Wrong way! Stop going that way! We don't want more snooping and regulation by giant, superpowerful organizations like yours and the U.S. government! We want less!"

He says he has spent two years focused on "issues like harmful content, elections integrity and privacy." If these have been the focuses of someone who is making motions to regulate the Internet, it's a good idea to stop and think a bit about each one. They are a mixed bag, at best.

1. Zuckerberg's concerns

Concern #1: "Harmful content"

Zuckerberg's glib gloss on "harmful content" is "terrorist propaganda, hate speech and more." Applying the modifier "harmful" to "content" is something done mainly by media regulators, giant corporations like Facebook, and the social justice left. Those of us who still care about free speech—and I think that's most of us—find the phrase not a little chilling.

Let's be reasonable, though. Sure, on the one hand, we can agree that groups using social media to organize dangerously violent terrorism, or child pornography, or other literally harmful and illegal activity, for example, should be shut down. And few people would have an issue with Facebook removing "hate speech" in the sense of the KKK, Stormfront, and other openly and viciously racist outfits. That sort of thing was routinely ousted from more polite areas of the Internet long ago, and relegated to the backwaters. That's OK with me. Reasonable and intellectually tolerant moderation is nothing new.

On the other hand, while all of that can perhaps be called "harmful content," the problem is how vague the phrase is. How far beyond such categories of more uncontroversially "harmful" content might it extend? It does a tiny bit of harm if someone tells a small lie; is that "harmful content"? Who knows? What if someone shares a conservative meme? That's sure to seem harmful to a large minority of the population. Is that a target? Why not progressive memes, then? Tech thought leaders like Kara Swisher would ban Ben Shapiro from YouTube, if she could; no doubt she finds Shapiro deeply harmful. Is he fair game? How about "hateful" atheist criticisms of Christianity—surely that's OK? But how about similarly "hateful" atheist criticisms of Islam? Is the one, but not the other, "harmful content"?

This isn't just a throwaway rhetorical point. It's deeply important to think about and get right, if we're going to use such loaded phrases as "harmful content" seriously, unironically, and especially if there is policymaking involved.

The problem is that the sorts of people who use phrases like "harmful content" constantly dodge these important questions. We can't trust them. We don't know how far they would go, if given a chance. Indeed, anyone with much experience debating can recognize instantly that the reason someone would use this sort of squishy phraseology is precisely because it is vague. Its vagueness enables the motte-and-bailey strategy: there's an easily-defended "motte" (tower keep) of literally harmful, illegal speech, on the one hand, but the partisans using this strategy really want to do their fighting in the "bailey" (courtyard) which is riskier but offers potential gains. Calling them both "harmful content" enables them to dishonestly advance repressive policies under a false cover.

"Hate speech" functions in a similar way. Here the motte is appallingly, strongly, openly bigoted speech, which virtually everyone would agree is awful. But we've heard more and more about hate speech in recent years because of the speech in the bailey that is under attack: traditional conservative and libertarian positions and speakers that enfuriate progressives. Radicals call them "racists" and their speech "hate speech," but without any substantiation.

It immediately raises a red flag when one of the most powerful men in the world blithely uses such phraseology without so much as a nod to its vagueness. Indeed, it is unacceptably vague.

Concern #2: Elections integrity

The reason we are supposed to be concerned about "elections integrity," as one has heard ad nauseam from mainstream media sources in the last couple years, is that Russia caused Trump to be elected by manipulating social media. This always struck me as being a bizarre claim. It is a widely-accepted fact that some Russians thought it was a good use of a few million dollars to inject even more noise (not all of it in Trump's favor) into the 2016 election by starting political groups and spreading political memes. I never found this particularly alarming, because I know how the Internet works: everybody is trying to persuade everybody, and a few million dollars from cash-strapped Russians is really obviously no more than shouting in the wind. What is the serious, fair-minded case that it even could have had any effect on the election? Are they so diabolically effective at propaganda to influence elections that, with a small budget, they can actually throw it one way or another? And if so, don't you think that people with similar magically effective knowhow would be on the payroll of the two most powerful political parties in the world?

Concern #3: Privacy

As to privacy—one of my hobby horses of late—Zuckerberg's concern is mainly one of self-preservation. After all, this is the guy who admitted that he called you and me, who trusted him with so much of our personal information, "dumb f--ks" for doing so. This is a guy who has built his business by selling your privacy to the highest bidder, without proposing any new business model. (Maybe they can make enough through kickbacks from the NSA, which must appreciate how Facebook acts as an unencrypted mass surveillance arm.)

Mark Zuckerberg has absolutely no credibility on this issue, even when describing his company's own plans.

He came out last month with what he doubtless wanted to appear to be a "come-to-Jesus moment" about privacy, saying that Facebook will develop the ultimate privacy app: secret, secured private chatting! Oh, joy! Just what I was missing (um?) and always wanted! But even that little bit (which is a very little bit) was too much to hope for: he said that maybe Facebook wouldn't allow total, strong, end-to-end encryption, because that would mean they couldn't "work with law enforcement."

The fact, as we'll see, that he wants the government to set privacy rules means that he still doesn't care about your privacy, for all his protestations.

Zuckerberg's declared motives are dodgy-to-laughable. But given his recommendation—that the government start systematically regulating the Internet—you shouldn't have expected anything different.

2. Mark Zuckerberg wants the government to censor you, so he doesn't have to.

Zuckerberg wants to regulate the Internet

In his previous missive, Zuckerberg gave some lame, half-hearted ideas about what Facebook itself would do to shore up Facebook's poor reputation for information privacy and security. Not so this time. This time, he wants government to take action: "I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators." But remember, American law strives for fairness, so these wouldn't be special regulations just for Facebook. They would be regulations for the entire Internet.

"From what I've learned," Zuckerberg declares, "I believe we need new regulation in four areas: harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability."

When Zuckerberg calls for regulation of the Internet, he doesn't discuss hardware—servers and routers and fiber-optic cables, etc. He means content on the Internet. When it comes to "harmful content and election integrity," he clearly means some harmful and spurious content that has appeared on, e.g., Facebook. When he talks about "privacy and data portability," he means the privacy and portability of your content.

So let's not mince words: to regulate the Internet in these four areas is tantamount to regulating content, i.e., expression of ideas. That suggests, of course, that we should be on our guard against First Amendment violations. It is one thing for Facebook to remove (just for example) videos from conservative commentators like black female Trump supporters Diamond and Silk, which Facebook moderators called "unsafe." It's quite another thing for the federal government to do such a thing.

Zuckerberg wants actual government censorship

Now, before you accuse me of misrepresenting Zuckerberg, look at what his article says. It says, "I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators," and in "four areas" in particular. The first-listed area is "harmful content." So Zuckerberg isn't saying, here, that it is Facebook that needs to shore up its defenses against harmful content. Rather, he is saying, here, that governments and regulators need to take action on harmful content. "That means deciding what counts as terrorist propaganda, hate speech and more." And more.

He even brags that Facebook is "working with governments, including French officials, on ensuring the effectiveness of content review systems." Oh, no doubt government officials will be only too happy to "ensure" that "content review systems" are "effective."

Now, in the United States, terrorist propaganda is already arguably against the law, although some regret that free speech concerns are keeping us from going far enough. Even there, we are right to move slowly and carefully, because a too-broad definition of "terrorist propaganda" might well put principled, honest, and nonviolent left- and right-wing opinionizing in the crosshairs of politically-motivated prosecutors.

But "deciding what counts as...hate speech" is a matter for U.S. law? Perhaps Zuckerberg should have finished his degree at Harvard, because he seems not to have learned that hate speech is unregulated under U.S. law, because of a little thing called the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As recently as 2017, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down a "disparagement clause" in patent law which had said that trademarks may not "disparage...or bring...into contemp[t] or disrepute" any "persons, living or dead." This is widely regarded as demonstrating that there is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment. As the opinion says,

Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express “the thought that we hate.” 

The trouble with the phrase "hate speech" lies in both the ambiguity and the vagueness of the word "hate" itself. "Hate speech" in its core sense (this is the motte) is speech that is motivated by the speaker's own bigoted hatred, but in an ancillary sense (this is the bailey), it means speech that we hate, because in our possibly incorrect opinion we think it is motivated by bigotry (but maybe it isn't). The phrase "hate speech" is also vague and useless because hate comes in degrees, with shifting objects. If I am irritated by Albanians and very mildly diss them, am I guilty of hate speech? Maybe. Jews? Almost certainly. What about white male southerners? Well, what's the answer there? And what if I really strongly hate a group that it is popular to hate, e.g., rapists?

There's much more to be said about this phrase, but here's the point. If government and regulators took Zuckerberg's call for hate speech legislation to heart, what rules would they use? Wouldn't they, quite naturally, shift according to political and religious sentiments? Wouldn't such regulations become a dangerous political football? Would there be any way to ensure it applies fairly across groups—bearing in mind that there is also a Fourteenth Amendment that legally requires such fairness? Surely we don't want the U.S. legal system subject to the same sort of spectacle that besets Canada and the U.K., in which people are prosecuted for criticizing some groups, while very similar criticism of other, unprotected groups goes unpunished?

But precisely that is, presumably, what Zuckerberg wants to happen. He doesn't want to be responsible for shutting down the likes of Diamond and Silk, or Ben Shapiro. That, he has discovered, is an extremely unpopular move; but he's deeply concerned about hate speech; so he would much rather the government do it.

If you want to say I'm not being fair to Zuckerberg or to those who want hate speech laws in the U.S., that of course you wouldn't dream of shutting down mainstream conservatives like this, I point you back to the motte and bailey. We, staunch defenders of free speech, can't trust you. We know about motte and bailey tactics. We know that, if not you, then plenty of your left-wing allies in government and media—who knows, maybe Kara Swisher—would advocate for government shutting down Ben Shapiro. That would be a win. The strategy is clear: find the edgiest thing he has said, label it "hate speech," and use it to argue that he poses a danger to others on the platform, so he should be deplatformed. Or just make an example of a few others like him. That might be enough for the much-desired chilling effect.

Even if you were to come out with an admirably clear and limited definition of "hate speech," which does not include mainstream conservatives and which would include some "hateful," extreme left-wing speech, that wouldn't help much. If the government adopted such "reasonable" regulations, it would be cold comfort. Once the cow has left the barn, once any hate speech law is passed, it's all too easy for someone to make subtle redefinitions of key terms to allow for viewpoint censorship. Then it's only a matter of time.

It's sad that it has come to this—that one of the most powerful Americans in the world suggests that we use the awesome power of law and government to regulate speech, to shut down "hate speech," a fundamentally obscure weasel word that can, ultimately, be used to shut down any speech we dislike—which after all is why the word is used. It's sad not only that this is what he has suggested, but that I have to point it out, and that it seems transgressive to, well, defend free speech. But very well then, I'll be transgressive; I'd say that those who agree with me now have an obligation to be transgressive in just this way.

We can only hope that, with Facebook executives heading for the exits and Facebook widely criticized, Zuckerberg's entirely wrongheaded call for (more) censorship will be ignored by federal and state governments. Don't count on it, though.

But maybe, censorship should be privatized

Facebook is also, Zuckerberg says, "creating an independent body so people can appeal our decisions." This is probably a legal ploy to avoid taking responsibility for censorship decisions, which would make it possible to regulate Facebook as a publisher, not just a platform. Of course, if the DMCA were replaced by some new regulatory framework, then Facebook might not have to give up control, because under the new framework, viewpoint censorship might not make them into publishers.

Of course, whether in the hands of a super-powerful central committee such as Zuckerberg is building, a giant corporation, or the government, we can expect censorship decisions to be highly politicized, to create an elite of censors and rank-and-file thought police to keep us plebs in line. Just imagine if all of the many conservative pages and individuals temporarily blocked or permanently banned by Facebook had to satisfy some third party tribunal.

One idea is for third-party bodies [i.e., not just one for Facebook] to set standards governing the distribution of harmful content and measure companies against those standards. Regulation could set baselines for what's prohibited and require companies to build systems for keeping harmful content to a bare minimum.

Facebook already publishes transparency reports on how effectively we're removing harmful content. I believe every major Internet service should do this quarterly, because it's just as important as financial reporting. Once we understand the prevalence of harmful content, we can see which companies are improving and where we should set the baselines.

There's a word for such "third-party bodies": censors.

The wording is stunning. He's concerned about "the distribution" of content and wants judged "measured" against some "standards." He wants content he disapproves of not just blocked, but kept to a "bare minimum." He wants to be "effective" in "removing harmful content." He really wants to "understand the prevalence of harmful content."

This is not the language that someone who genuinely cares about "the freedom for people to express themselves" would use.

3. The rest of the document

I'm going to cover the rest of the document much more briefly, because it's less important.

Zuckerberg favors regulations to create "common standards for verifying political actors," i.e., if you want to engage in political activity, you'll have to register with Facebook. This is all very vague, though. What behavior, exactly, is going to be caught in the net that's being weaved here? Zuckerberg worries that "divisive political issues" are the target of "attempted interference." Well, yes—well spotted there, political issues sure can be divisive! But it isn't their divisiveness that Facebook or other platforms should try to regulate; it is the "interference" by foreign government actors. What that means precisely, I really wonder.

Zuckerberg's third point is that we need a "globally harmonized framework" for "effective privacy and data protection." Well, that's music to my ears. But it's certainly rich, the very notion that the world's biggest violator of privacy, indeed the guy whose violations are perhaps the single biggest cause of widespread concern about privacy, wants privacy rights protected.

He wants privacy rights protected the way he wants free speech protected. I wouldn't believe him.

Zuckerberg's final point is another that you might think would make me happy: "regulation should guarantee the principle of data portability."

Well. No. Code should guarantee data portability. Regulation shouldn't guarantee any such thing. I don't trust governments, in the pockets of "experts" in the pay of giant corporations, to settle the rules according to which data is "portable." They might, just for instance, write the rules in such a way that gives governments a back door into what should be entirely private data.

Beware social media giants bearing gifts.

And portability, while nice, is not the point. Of course Zuckerberg is OK with the portability of data, i.e., allowing people to more easily move it from one vendor to another. But that's a technical detail of convenience. What matters, rather, is whether I own my data and serve it myself to my subscribers, according to rules that I and they mutually agree on.

But that is something that Zuckerberg specifically can't agree to, because he's already told you that he wants "hate speech and more" to be regulated. By the government or by third party censors.

You can't have it both ways, Zuckerberg. Which is it going to be: data ownership that protects unfettered free speech, or censorship that ultimately forbids data ownership?


How I replaced Dropbox

Updated April 2 at bottom.

My main beef with Dropbox is that it's not secure, not adequately encrypted, and there's been a little too much indication that Dropbox is spying on user data.

Ever since I decided to lock down my cyber-life, I had Dropbox in my sights. It was going to be a pain to replace it, I thought, so it took a while before I got around to doing so. I finally did do so today.

The longest step of this process was deciding what I wanted to do. At first, I thought I'd set up my own lightweight cloud server using my desktop, which would sync files on all my devices, something like NextCloud. A great bonus is that this makes it particularly easy to sync things like your address book and passwords. This doesn't seem like a bad idea and is now my fallback. But I ultimately decided to pass because (a) setup might end up being very bothersome, (b) it might eat up desktop resources, and (c) I'd have to keep my computer on all the time, which seems suboptimal.

All of the problems with installing my own NextCloud—bothersome setup, resources constraints, and always-on system—are taken care of by getting my own server or, less ambitiously, what is called a NAS, or Network-Attached Storage system. I spent several hours yesterday researching all about NASes, and came close to getting either a QNAP or a Synology NAS, because they're so frickin' cool. I mean, jeez, it's actually a fully-functioning standalone web server with a zillion apps (especially Synology), and sure, you can use it to sync your files. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, "This is a lot of work (and yet another giant attack surface for hackers), when all I really want is a Dropbox replacement." If I were just hacking and exploring, I would have gotten a NAS in a heartbeat, they're so cool. But I have other things to do, so...

I also semi-seriously considered getting a zero-knowledge encryption system, like SpiderOak. The premise seems solid: your files are all saved in the cloud, but 100% encrypted, and the key needed to decrypt them is only on your machine (or in your head). SpiderOak (and many other similar services) cannot scan your files because it lacks the keys to read them. I guess my experience with being hacked and seriously disaffected with storing data in the cloud generally turned me off even to this. If I don't have to trust a company (as I do if, e.g., I want to use a VPN), then I'd prefer not to.

So, how do you get cloud functionality without the cloud? With syncing apps. These use different technologies to sync your devices directly with each other, through the Internet, but not stored on the Internet, and without any one of them acting as a server to the others (so they're all peers of each other in your little device network). It turns out that there are several options available here, and I came close to going with Syncthing because it's open source (and therefore, more trustworthy) but...no iPhone app. But the next best thing is Resilio Sync, which is also based on (the UPDATE: closed-source) Bittorrent Sync. Now, the fact that it uses Tor doesn't mean your data is stored in the dark web. It simply makes use of the Tor network, which is perfectly legal and legit, that is required for accessing the dark web (something I've never even tried to do, by the way). The beauty of the system is that in transit through cyberspace, your data is end-to-end encrypted through a decentralized network. It's hard to get more secure, or that's my understanding.

Resilio Sync is pretty easy to install if you're not using Linux. It was a bit of a pain (they could work harder on the setup, I mean really, guys) but still doable, if like me you're reasonably adept with vague Linux instructions. It didn't take longer than an hour to completely set up and test (my son did it in half the time), and then I started moving folders over, one by one, from Dropbox to my new Sync folder. This was quite satisfying, not unlike that satisfying feeling of changing my account email addresses from gmail.com to sanger.io. And because Resilio updates via your LAN directly from device to device, it syncs much faster than Dropbox. Like Linux, the slightly geekier alternative turns out to be just better, all the way around.

I got the $100 one-time deal so my family could all use it. Since this is roughly what I've been paying to Dropbox yearly for the last decade or whatever it's been, I was very happy to pay this.

How does it work? Well, once it's set up, it's just like Dropbox. Create a new file in your work folder? It's practically instantly synced to any other devices that are on, as soon as you save it. (Of course, it does have to be on, in order to sync. And your phone won't sync the file and folder contents; it will only sync the index, and then, as with the Dropbox mobile app, you can download the item one-by-one.)

There is one very small change this might require to your routine. Since your files aren't in the cloud but only on other machines, before you leave one machine with files on it you might want to access elsewhere, you'll want to make sure either (a) that machine will stay on while you're away from it, or (b) you've synced before you leave while they're in close proximity (the LAN connection will make syncing faster, too).

Love it so far. Buh-bye Dropbox! Any regrets so far? Not really. While LAN syncing for me is significantly faster than Dropbox, it uses only 10% of my available LAN bandwidth, and I wasn't able to get it to go faster; I'm not sure what's up with that. I tried to fix it but didn't dare do too much, since it involved a lot of fiddly changes to settings that, it seems, need to be undone. Your mileage may vary.

Also, they didn't make Linux GUI other than a browser-based one, which is OK; it works well enough. They didn't even bother to create a tray icon, but they do have an API, so my 12-year-old son made one for them and I'm already using it. (Want the code, Resilio? I can set that up.)

Of course, if you haven't taken the Linux plunge, Resilio Sync is probably going to be a lot more usable for you—not that, at the end of the day, it isn't extremely usable for Linux users, too. And, as I've indicated, there are many, many other options available to you if you want to ditch Dropbox. You should consider them for yourself.


April 2 update:

I've been using Resilio Sync for the last two weeks, and my son and I have a few concerns. The first is one we knew about going in: it's not a cloud solution. Syncing works only if both devices are on. This means syncing isn't exactly "set it and forget it." You have to pay attention to whether something is syncing, and if you forget...you won't be synced. After using Dropbox for years, this turns out to be quite annoying.

This, in turn, means I have to worry more about losing files. I can back up files on my main machine, which is always a great idea (of course), but if I haven't synced because two machines haven't been on at the same time (or because I need to reboot Sync, which is also an annoyance), then I might still lose laptop files because I only back up my desktop.

Backing up is all the more important because it is possible to inadvertently delete a bunch of files from one machine...leading them to be deleted everywhere. That would be a disaster. It's like automatically deleting all your backups. Of course, the stuff might be rescuable in Trash, but do you really want to rely on Trash as a fallback solution?

To pour salt in the wound, if I really want peace of mind, I have to make sure the the backup program is fantastic. I can't rely on Resilio Sync as a backup program. And the default Ubuntu backup program kind of sucks (which is surprising to me). This isn't a count against Resilio, but it does make switching, if I'm going to switch, more urgent.

So it's back to the drawing board. A zero-knowledge encryption cloud solution is sounding better now, but there are two sticking points for me: (a) I don't want to have to trust an external vendor if I don't have to, and (b) I'm not confident that I know what's going on well enough to be able to say that my data is truly secure and private.

Last time, I came very close to getting a NAS, but I didn't. I'm now 90% sure I will get a NAS after all.

The reason I didn't get a NAS the first time is that it sounded like just too much trouble to set it up and maintain it, not to mention having another attack surface to lock down. But the more I think about it, the more I think it might be worth it.

After all, another rather huge advantage of a NAS is that I don't have to rely on any cloud service I don't control myself, at least for my personal purposes, for a range of purposes we now use different cloud services for. That means I can maintain my own synced contacts, passwords, bookmarks, etc., as well as supporting collaborative documents (a la Google Docs) I want to work on with others (such as a Declaration of Digital Independence). I might still have to rely on Google Docs (or something like it) for work, but at least my private life would be more locked down.

Any one of the latter advantages certainly wouldn't be enough to justify getting a NAS. But taken together, and combined with an always-on Dropbox alternative that I can "set and forget," it's looking better and better.

Stay tuned. I'm not done yet.

Another installment in my series on how I’m locking down my cyber-life.


How and why I got a VPN

As part of my ongoing efforts to lock down my cyber-life, I finally decided to investigate VPNs (virtual private networks) and subscribe to one, if it seemed to be a good idea.

Well, it is a good idea. So I got one, and it was pretty cheap.

What is a VPN, anyway?

A virtual private network, briefly, is subscription service (there are free ones, but don't use a free one) that you can connect to in order to mask your IP address, pretending (unsuccessfully if you're using a mobile connection) that you're connecting to the Internet from somewhere else, while encrypting the data that passes between you and your ISP (which can mean your data is encryped as it passes through wifi). It doesn't replace your ISP; you still need an ISP to connect to the Internet. More specifically, a VPN (typically, a for-profit company):

  1. Is runs a number of servers (computers), which ideally are located all around the world, each of which connects to the Internet on your behalf.
  2. Is a service you connect to, as a data "tunnel" to the Internet. You can set up your computer or phone so that it connects to the VPN whenever you get online (or whenever you like). All your requests to the Internet, and all the responses you receive from the Internet, are routed through one or another of the VPN's nodes.
  3. Encrypts the data exchanged between its servers and your device.
  4. Typically doesn't log your traffic (but there's no way to know this for sure) or intercept your data (unless they receive a specific court order to do so in your case).
  5. Is typically a paid service; there are free ones.

Why would I want a VPN?

So, what does a VPN do? What is it good for? What are the benefits? Why would you get one? Several things (cf. this useful intro):

  1. Foil the NSA, maybe. You connect to the Internet via your ISP at home, right? Well, since data you exchange with the VPN is encrypted, your ISP can't detect anything about what websites you're looking at or what information you're sending. Since mass surveillance (e.g., by the NSA) is typically done at the ISP level, this foils such surveillance. But maybe you trust all the fine, upstanding people who work for the government and don't care. Well, there are other reasons, as well:
  2. Make it harder for websites, hackers, and advertisers to spot you. When you connect to a website without a VPN, it typically logs the IP address that is accessing it, maybe info about your device, browser, etc. This can be used by the website to track you and for various nefarious purposes. When you connect with a VPN, websites log data from the VPN's server, which says nothing about you. This protects your information privacy and security (which you should care about!).
  3. Use airport, hotel, and restaurant connections securely. If you connect to the Internet via your airport's connection, hackers can pretty easily do nasty things with your data stream. But if your data stream is completely encrypted on its way through the airport's wifi to and from the VPN, those hackers can't touch you. Take that, hackers! This is a huge advantage to me, considering how much traveling I'm doing these days.
  4. See content as if you were elsewhere. If you want to access information that is accessible only by IP addresses from a given country (such as the U.K. or the U.S.), a VPN lets you do so. You can make it look like you're from there! E.g., I can watch Brits-only content from the BBC. That's just kind of cool.
  5. More safely do P2P file sharing. If you must, and are cheap, and refuse to pay the creators of your content, you bastard.

If you don't care about privacy or security or striking a blow against mass surveillance, then you should pass. If you do care about those things, consider getting a VPN.

WThere's one significant disadvantage about VPNs, which makes me sad, but I'll live with it: VPNs do slow down your Internet connection, but not necessarily by much. As you know (if you know how the Internet works at all), Internet traffic bounces from node to node as it makes its way from the website (or whatever) you're accessing to your device. The VPN adds one node to that trip. As long as you connect to a VPN server located near you, this trip isn't actually lengthed by much. BestVPN.com says it slows down your connection speed by 10%, but the actual amount at any given time depends on many factors. I rarely notice much of a difference, for what it's worth.

Update: after using it for a couple days, my VPN (which is reputedly one of the faster ones) doesn't really noticeably slow down my connection, even at the hotel. Except when I was connected to the U.K., and then the only problem was that I had to buffer a video once or twice.

What VPN did I choose?

I'm not telling. I spent some hours doing research. A name emerged. You should do the same and use your own judgment. Be careful not to subscribe to any shady VPNs; they doubtless do exist and it might be hard to figure out whether yours is one. There can be problems with the software as well. Unfortunately, some amount of trust is involved if you're not a specialist. I bore these requirements in mind:

  • Don't just look for claims that they don't keep logs; check that the claims have been verified (by consultants, courts, or police).
  • Bear in mind that many reviews might be paid for and so can't be trusted. It might be hard to tell which reviews these are.
  • Speed.
  • Can one determine who owns the company? Do they look legit?
  • Support for Linux.

There are other features you might be interested in, of course.

How hard was it to buy and install?

I can speak only about the one I bought and installed: it was dead simple. It was no harder to buy than any other subscription service. As for installation, I had it downloaded, installed, and working in maybe two minutes. Of course, that's just the one I bought.

Note, you don't have to install special software to use a VPN, e.g., if you're using an OS or browser that has the software built in.

There's much more to know about VPNs, which you might want to know if you're going to get into it. You're just getting a rank beginner's explanation of why he got one, here.

This is part of the series on how I'm locking down my cyber-life.


A reply to Mark Zuckerberg's "Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking"

Yesterday (March 6), Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg outlined Facebook's new "vision and principles around building a privacy-focused messaging and social networking platform." The essential problem isn't that they need a new app; rather, they need to reform their existing one.

Rather than acknowledging the elephant in the room—that users are deeply incensed that their privacy continues to be systematically sold by Big Tech, that ongoing security issues stem from Facebook's inherent and business-critical data-collection and -sharing practices—Zuckerberg pretends that it's important that he solves, well, a different problem:

But people increasingly also want to connect privately in the digital equivalent of the living room. As I think about the future of the internet, I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today's open platforms. Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally, which is why we build social networks.

It is as if Zuckerberg had been reminded one too many times by his advisers that people really do care, after all, about this pesky privacy issue, which once upon a time he could say with impunity was no longer a "social norm." Yeah, so maybe he was wrong. Maybe the perennial demands for a right to privacy are not a changeable social norm, after all. Maybe people really do care about their information being controlled by themselves and not by giant corporations and authorities. Yes, Zuck, well spotted. People do care about privacy after all. But he interpreted the general sentiment in the most naive, simple-minded way, and decided that what people were missing were...private chat rooms.

Because people are really upset that they don't have private chat rooms, apparently. But never fear! Zuck is here to save the day! He'll make chat rooms, and he'll make them really, really private! (Well, not really. Not even that, as we'll see.)

Throughout the 3,200-word piece, there is no explicit acknowledgment that there might be a different way to do more open and public social networking. Nothing about standards and protocols. Nothing about interoperability between independent social media networks.

Zuckerberg also shows no awareness of the real reasons we should care about privacy. No, it's not just about people being free to have intimate conversations. There's much more to it than that. It is ultimately about freedom and autonomy. It's a fundamental right. Like free speech, people who don't understand it or who want to control us are only too happy to make it conditional on their ultimately arbitrary and power-driven decisions.


Zuck makes much of WhatsApp's end-to-end encryption. It is certainly true that private messaging services should have end-to-end encryption built in, and that, no, not even Facebook should be able to listen in on our private conversations: "End-to-end encryption prevents anyone—including us—from seeing what people share on our services." Well spotted, indeed! But as we'll see in a bit, he doesn't really mean it. Are you surprised?

Does Zuckerberg propose privacy improvements to Facebook itself, the public and semi-public service that Facebook has used to exploit us, to its enormous profit? No, not really. Perhaps this is an oblique and hopeful-sounding reference: "Over the next few years, we plan to rebuild more of our services around these ideas." Sure. Maybe you will, if you're still around. We'll believe it when we see it. But of course we shouldn't believe any such oblique promises from an arrogant frat boy who deems his users to be "dumb fucks."

Later in the piece, Zuckerberg tips his hat slightly toward those of us who want to decentralize social media: "End-to-end encryption is an important tool in developing a privacy-focused social network. Encryption is decentralizing—it limits services like ours from seeing the content flowing through them and makes it much harder for anyone else to access your information."

But soon after repeating this tantalizing offer of real end-to-end encryption, Zuckerberg takes it away:

At the same time, there are real safety concerns to address before we can implement end-to-end encryption across all of our messaging services. Encryption is a powerful tool for privacy, but that includes the privacy of people doing bad things. When billions of people use a service to connect, some of them are going to misuse it for truly terrible things like child exploitation, terrorism, and extortion. We have a responsibility to work with law enforcement and to help prevent these wherever we can. We are working to improve our ability to identify and stop bad actors across our apps by detecting patterns of activity or through other means, even when we can't see the content of the messages, and we will continue to invest in this work. But we face an inherent tradeoff because we will never find all of the potential harm we do today when our security systems can see the messages themselves.

People who actually know something about how privacy works and why it's important—you can be one of them, if you read The Art of Invisibility by Kevin Mitnick or Cybersecurity for Beginners by Raef Meeuwisse—will instantly spot a contradiction here. If there is truly end-to-end encryption, then it will be impossible for Facebook "to work with law enforcement and to help prevent these wherever we can." This is why some politicians and governments simply want to outlaw encryption, which would be a giant step toward totalitarianism, and absolutely insane to boot. Maybe we could make this a teachable moment for Zuck: "Look, dude, you can't have it both ways. Either you have end-to-end encryption that the authorities cannot (without superheroic efforts) crack, or you give authorities (and yourselves, and expert hackers) a back door that naturally undermines the real privacy (not to mention security) of your network. You can't have it both ways."

But no—he wants us to believe that we can. And that he believes that we can.

Truly risible.

The hard, cold fact is that, just as whispered conversations conducted far from prying ears and detection technology, in principle, cannot be monitored, so private conversations online, if they are successfully end-to-end encrypted, cannot be monitored...so long as eavesdroppers don't have the private keys, and the private keys are strong enough not to be crackable, and...and...and...

Anyway, Zuckerberg has amply demonstrated that he's learned nothing. Move along, folks—nothing to see here.

The decentralization revolution will proceed as scheduled.


Please use #DecentralizeSocialMedia when you share this post!


My Facebook #DeletionDay goodbye message

Here's what I posted as my last long message to Facebook.


Folks, as previously announced, tomorrow will be my #DeletionDay for Facebook. It'll be the last day I'll post here, and I'll begin the process for the permanent removal of my account. (Among other things, I'll make a copy of my data and my friends list.) I'm sorry to those who want me to stay, but there are too many reasons to quit.

Let me explain again, more tersely, why I'm quitting.

You probably already know that I think this kind of social media, as fun as it undoubtedly can be, undermines relationships, wastes our time, and distracts us. I also agree, as one guy can be seen saying on virally-shared videos, that social media is particularly bad for kids. All I can say is, it's just sad that all that hasn't been enough for me (and most of us) to quit.

But in 2018, it became all too clear that Big Tech—which is now most definitely a thing—is cynically and strongly committed to using social media as a potent tool of political control, which it certainly is. They like having that power. For companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple, reining in wrongthink is a moral imperative. And they're doing the bidding of the Establishment when they do so. It's very scary, I think.

The only thing that gives them this awesome power over us and our free, voluntary conversations is that we have given them that power. But notice the thing that empowers them: we give them our data to manage. It's not really ours. They take it, sell it to advertisers, repackage it, and show it back to us in ways they control. And they can silence us if they like. That's because we have sold our privacy to them for convenience and fun. We're all what Nick Carr aptly called "digital sharecroppers." I now think it's a terrible deal. It's still voluntary, thank goodness; so I'm opting out.

Another thing is that I started reading a book called Cybersecurity for Beginners (no, I'm not too proud to read a book called that) by Raef Meeuwisse, after my phone (and Google account and Coinbase) were hacked. This finally opened my eyes to the very close connection between privacy and security. Meeuwisse explains that information security has become much more complex than it was in the past, what with multiple logins, multiple (interconnected) devices, multiple (interconnected) cloud services, and in short multiple potential points of failure in multiple layers.

[Adding now: Someone recommended, and I bought and started reading, another good privacy book called The Art of Invisibility by Kevin Mitnick. Mitnick is a famous hacker. Meeuwisse is a security professional as well. The Mitnick book is much more readable for savvy Internet users, while the Meeuwisse book is a bit drier and might be more of a good introduction to the field of information security for managers.]

The root cause of the increased security risks, as I see it (as Meeuwisse helped me to see), is our tendency to trust our data to more and more centralizing organizations (like Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple). This means we trust them not only to control our data to our benefit, but also to get security right. But they can't be expected to get security right precisely because social media and cloud services depend on their ability to access our data. If you want robust security, you must demand absolute privacy. That means that only you own and control your data.

If we were the gatekeepers of our own data (if it were delivered out of our own clouds, via decentralized feeds we control, as open source software and blockchains support), then we wouldn't have nearly so many problems.

Maybe even more fundamental is that there are significant risks—personal, social, and political—to letting corporations (or governments) collectivize us. But precisely that is what has been going on over the last ten years or so.

It's time for us to work a new technological revolution and decentralize, or decollectivize, ourselves. One reason I love working for a blockchain company is that we're philosophically committed to the idea of decentralization, of personal autonomy. But it's still early days for both open source software and blockchain. Much remains to be done to make this technology usable to grandma.

While we're waiting for viable (usable) new solutions, I think the first step is to lock down your cyber-life and help create demand by just getting rid of things like Facebook. You don't have to completely unplug from everything; you have to be hardcore or extreme about your privacy (although I think that's a good idea). You can do what you can, what you're able to do.

I won't blame or think ill of you if you stay on Facebook. I'm just trying to explain why I'm leaving. And I guess I am encouraging you to really start boning up on digital hygiene.

Below, I'm going to link to a series of relevant blog posts that you can explore if you want to follow me out, or just to start thinking more about this stuff.

Also, I hope you'll subscribe yourself to my personal mailing list, which I'll start using more regularly tomorrow. By the way, if you might be interested in some other, more specialized list that I might start based on my interests (such as Everipedia, education, libertarianism, or whatever), please join the big list.

Also note, especially if your email is from Gmail, you will have to check your spam folder for the confirmation mail, if you want to be added. Please move any mails from me and my list out of your spam (or junk) folder into your inbox so Google learns I'm actually not a spammer. :-)


There, that's me being "terse."


How deep should one go into this privacy stuff, anyway?

Probably deeper than you thought. Here's why.

If you are convinced that privacy actually matters, and you really want to lock down your cyber-life, as I am trying to do, there are easy options, like switching to Brave (or Firefox with plugins that harden it for privacy). I've done that. Then there are more challenging but doable options, like switching your email away from Gmail. I've done that. Then there are the hardcore options, like permanently quitting Facebook. I will be doing that later this month.

And then, finally, there are some extreme, weird, bizarre, and even self-destructive options, like completely unplugging—or, less extremely, plunking down significant sums of money on privacy hardware that may or may not work—or that works, but costs a lot. As an illustrative example, we can think about the wonderfully well-meaning company Purism and its charmingly privacy-obsessed products, the Librem 13 and 15 laptops as well as the Librem 5 phone, which is due in April "Q3".

I'm going to use this as an example of the hardcore level, then I'm going to go back to the more interesting broader questions. You can skip the next section if it totally bores you.

Should I take financial risks to support the cause of privacy?

If I sound a little skeptical, it's because I am. Purism is a good example because, on the one hand, it's totally devoted to privacy and 100% open source (OSS), concepts that I love. (By the way, I have absolutely no relationship with them. I haven't even purchased one of their products yet.) Privacy and open source go together like hand in glove, by the way, because developers of OSS avoid adding privacy-violating features. OSS developers tend to be privacy fiends, not least because free software projects offer few incentives to sell your data, while having many incentives to keep it secure. But, as much as I love open source software (like Linux, Ubuntu, Apache, and LibreOffice, to take a few examples) and open content (like Wikipedia and Everipedia), not to mention the promise of open hardware, the quality of such open and free projects can be uneven.

The well-known lack of polish on OSS is mainly because whether a coding or editorial problem is fixed depends on self-directed volunteers. It often helps when a for-profit enterprise gets involved to push things forward decisively (like Everipedia redesigning wiki software and putting Wikipedia's content on the blockchain). Similarly, to be sure, we wouldn't have a prayer of seeing a mass-produced Linux phone without companies like Purism. The company behind Ubuntu, Canonical, tried and failed to make an Ubuntu phone. If they had succeeded, I might own one now.

So there is an interesting dilemma here, I think. On the one hand, I want to support companies like Purism, because they're doing really important work. The world desperately needs a choice other than Apple and Android, and not just any other choice—a choice that respects our privacy and autonomy (or, as the OSS community likes to say, our freedom). On the other hand, if you want to use a Linux phone daily for mission-critical business stuff, then the Librem 5 phone isn't quite ready for you yet.

My point here isn't about the phone (but I do hope they succeed). My point is that our world in 2019 is not made for privacy. You have to change your habits significantly, switch vendors and accounts, accept new expenses, and maybe even take some risks, if you go beyond "hardcore" levels of privacy.

Is it worth it? Maybe you think being even just "hardcore" about privacy isn't worth it. How deep should one go into this privacy stuff, anyway? In the rest of this post, I'll explore this timely issue.

The four levels

I've already written in this blog about why privacy is important. But what I haven't explored is the question of how important it is. It's very important, to be sure, but you can make changes that are more or less difficult. What level of difficulty should you accept: easy, challenging, hardcore, or extreme?

Each of these levels of difficulty, I think, naturally goes with a certain attitude toward privacy. What level are you at now? Have a look:

  1. The easy level. You want to make it a bit harder for hackers to do damage to your devices, your data, your reputation, or your credit. The idea here is that just as it would be irresponsible to leave your door unlocked if you live in a crime-ridden neighborhood, it's irresponsible to use weak passwords and other such things. You'll install a firewall (or, rather, let commercial software do this for you) and virus protection software.—If you stop there, you really don't care if corporations or the government spies on you, at the end of the day. Targeted ads might be annoying, but they're tolerable, you think, and you have nothing to hide from the government. This level is better than nothing, but it's also quite irresponsible, in my opinion. Most people are at this level (at best). The fact that this attitude is so widespread is what has allowed corporations, governments, and criminals to get their claws into us.
  2. The challenging but doable level. You understand that hackers can actually ruin your life, and, in scary, unpredictable circumstances, a rogue corporation or a government could, as well. As unlikely as this might be, we are right to take extra precautions to avoid the worst. Corporate and government intrusions into privacy royally piss you off, and you're ready to do something reasonably dramatic (such as switch away from Gmail), to send a message and make yourself feel better. But you know you'll never wholly escape the clutches of your evil corporate and government overlords. You don't like this at all, but you're "realistic"; you can't escape the system, and you're mostly resigned to it. You just want the real abusers held to account. Maybe government regulation is the solution.—This level is better than nothing. This is the level of the Establishment types who want the government to "do something" about Facebooks abuses, but are only a little bothered by the NSA. I think this level is still irresponsible. If you're ultimately OK with sending your data to Google and Facebook, and you trust the NSA, you're still one of the sheeple who are allowing them to take over the world.
  3. The hardcore level. Now things get interesting. Your eyes have been opened. You know Google and Facebook aren't going to stop. Why would they? They like being social engineers. They want to control who you vote for. They're unapologetic about inserting you and your data into a vast corporate machine. Similarly, you know that governments will collect more of your data in the future, not less, and sooner or later, some of those governments will use the data for truly scary and oppressive social control, just as China is doing. If you're at this level, it's not just because you want to protect your data from criminals. It's because you firmly believe that technology has developed especially over the last 15 years without sufficient privacy controls built in. You demand that those controls be built in now, because otherwise, huge corporations and the largest, most powerful governments in history can monitor us 24/7, wherever we are. This can't end well. We need to completely change the Internet and how it operates.—The hardcore level is not just political, it's fundamentally opposed to the systems that have developed. This is why you won't just complain about Facebook, you'll quit Facebook, because you know that if you don't, you're participating in what what is, in the end, a simply evil system. In other ways, you're ready to lock down your cyber-life systematically. You know what a VPN is and you use one. You would laugh at the idea of using Dropbox. You know you'll have to work pretty hard at this. It's only a matter of how much you can accomplish.
  4. The extreme level. The hardcore level isn't hardcore enough. Of course corporations and governments are using your data to monitor and control you in a thousand big and small ways. This is one of the most important problems of our time. You will go out of your way, on principle and so that you can help advance the technology, to help lock down everybody's data. Of course you use Linux. Probably, you're a computer programmer or some other techie, so you can figure out how to make the bleeding edge privacy software and hardware work. Maybe you help develop it.—The extreme level is beyond merely political. It's not just one cause among many. You live with tech all the time and you demand that every bit of your tech respect your privacy and autonomy; that should be the default mode. You've tried and maybe use several VPNs. You run your own servers for privacy purposes. You use precious little proprietary software, which you find positively offensive. You're already doing everything you can to make that how you interact with technology.

In sum, privacy is can be viewed primarily as a matter of personal safety with no big demands on your time, as a political side-issue that demands only a little of your time, as an important political principle that places fairly serious demands on your time, or as a political principle that is so important that it guides all of your technical choices.

What should be your level of privacy commitment?

Let's get clear, now. I, for example, have made quite a few changes that show something like hardcore commitment. I switched to Linux, replaced Gmail, Chrome, and Google Search, and am mostly quitting privacy-invasive social media. I even use a VPN. The reason I'm making these changes isn't that I feel personally threatened by Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Facebook. It's not about me and my data; I'm not paranoid. It's about a much bigger, systemic threat. It's a threat to all of us, because we have given so much power to corporations and governments in the form of easily collectible data that they control. It really is true that knowledge is power, and that is why these organizations are learning as much about us as they can.

There's more to it than that. If you're not willing to go beyond moderately challenging changes, you're probably saying, "But Larry, why should I be so passionate about...data? Isn't that kind of, you know, wonky and weird? Seems like a waste of time."

Look. The digital giants in both the private and public sectors are not just collecting our data. By collecting our data, they're collectivizing us. If you want to understand the problem, think about that. Maybe you hate how stuff you talked about on Facebook or Gmail, or that you searched for on Google or Amazon, suddenly seem to be reflected by weirdly appropriate ads everywhere. Advertisers and Big Tech are, naturally, trying to influence you; they're able to do so because you've agreed to give your data to companies that aggregate it and sell it to advertisers. Maybe you think Russia was able to influence U.S. elections. How would that have been possible, if a huge percentage of the American public were not part of one centralized system, Facebook? Maybe you think Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and others are outrageously biased and are censoring people for their politics. That's possible only because we've let those companies manage our data, and we must use their proprietary protocols if we want to use it. Maybe you're concerned about China hacking and crippling U.S. computers. A big part of the problem is that good security practices have been undermined by lax privacy practices.

In every case, the problem ultimately is we don't care enough about privacy. We've been far too willing to place control of our data in the hands of the tech giants who are only too happy to take it off our hands, in exchange for "services."

Oh, we're serviced, all right.

In these and many, many more cases, the root problem is that we don't hold the keys—they do. Our obligation, therefore, is to take back the keys.

Fortunately, we are still able to. We can create demand for better systems that respect our privacy. We don't have to use Facebook, for example. We can leave en masse, creating a demand for a decentralized system where we each own and control how our data is distributed, and the terms on which we see other people's data. We don't have to leave these important decisions in the hands of creeps like Mark Zuckerberg. We can use email, mailing lists, and newer, more privacy-respecting platforms.

To take another example, we don't have to use Microsoft or Apple to run our computers. While Apple is probably better, it's still bad; it still places many important decisions in the hands of one giant, powerful company, that will ultimately control (and pass along) our data under confusing terms that we must agree to if we are to use their products. Because their software is proprietary and closed-source, when we use their hardware and services, we simply have to trust that what happens to it after we submit it will be managed to our benefit.

Instead of these top-down, controlling systems, we could be using Linux, which is much, much better than it was 15 years ago.

By the way, here's something that ought to piss you off: smart phones are the one essential 21st-century technology where you have no free, privacy-respecting option. It's Apple or Google (or Microsoft, with its moribund Windows Phone). There still isn't a Linux phone. So wish Purism luck!

We all have different political principles and priorities, of course. I personally am not sure where privacy stacks up, precisely, against the many, many other principles there are.

One thing is very clear to me: privacy is surprisingly important, and more important than most people think it is. It isn't yet another special, narrow issue like euthanasia, gun control, or the national debt. It is broader than those. Its conceptual cousins are broad principles like freedom and justice. This is because privacy touches every aspect of information. Digital information has increasingly become, in the last 30 years, the very lifeblood of so much of our modern existence: commerce, socialization, politics, education, entertainment, and more. Whoever controls these things controls the world.

That, then, is the point. We should care about privacy a lot—we should be hardcore if not extreme about it—because we care about who controls us, and we want to retain control over ourselves. If you want to remain a democracy, if you don't want society itself to become an appendage of massive corporate and government mechanisms, by far the most powerful institutions in history, then you need to start caring about privacy. That's how important it is.

Privacy doesn't mainly have to do with hiding our dirty secrets from neighbors and the law. It mainly has to do with whether we must ask anyone's permission to communicate, publish, support, oppose, purchase, compensate, save, retrieve, and more. It also has to do with whether we control the conditions under which others can access our information, including information about us. Do we dictate the terms under which others can use all this information that makes up so much of life today, or does some central authority do that for us?

Whoever controls our information controls those parts of our lives that are touched by information. The more of our information is in their hands, the more control they have over us. It's not about secrecy; it's about autonomy.


Part of a series on how I'm locking down my cyber-life.


How and why I transitioned to Linux—how you can, too

Let me briefly tell my Linux story. If you're thinking about moving to Linux, and wondering how you'd do so, it might give you some pointers and inspiration.

The back story

My first introduction to the command line was in the 80s when I first started learning about computers and, like many geeky kids of the time, wrote my first BASIC computer programs. But it wasn't until my job starting Nupedia (and then Wikipedia) that I spent much time on the Bash command line.

(Let me explain. "Bash" means "Bourne-again shell," a rewrite of the class Unix shell "sh." A "shell" is a program for interacting with the computer by processing terse commands to do basic stuff like find and manipulate files; a terminal, or terminal emulator, is a program that runs a shell. The terminal is what shows you that command line, where you type your commands like "move this file there" and "download that file from this web address" and "inject this virus into that database". The default terminal used by Linux Ubuntu, for example, is called Gnome Terminal--which runs Bash, the standard Linux shell.)

Even then (and in the following years when I got into programming again), I didn't learn much beyond things like cd (switch directory) and ls (list directory contents).

It was then, around 2002, that I first decided to install Linux. Back then, maybe the biggest "distro" (flavor of Linux) was Red Hat Linux, so that's what I installed. I remember making a partition (dividing the hard disk into parts, basically) and dual-booting (installing and making it possible to use both) Linux and Windows. It was OK, but it was also rather clunky and much rougher and much less user-friendly than the Windows of the day. So I didn't use it much.

Linux on a virtual machine

When I decided in mid-2016 that I wanted to start learning to program, really really, more seriously this time, I knew I'd have to transition soon to Linux, especially if I was going to learn Ruby on Rails (which I was and am). There's less pressure to do this if you're a Mac user, since modern Macs make a Bash console easily available; OSX is based on Unix and so is a sibling of Linux. Anyway, if you don't want to plunge headfirst into Linux-only or dual-booting, then the Thing To Do, beginners are rightly told, is to install Linux on a virtual machine.

A "virtual machine" (VM) is a program that, generally, runs in Windows or Mac and allows you to run a completely distinct operating system within a window (or in my case, a couple windows, one for each monitor). When I turned on my computer (i.e., the physical machine with the on switch), I booted into Windows as usual. But when I wanted to start programming, I started the VM and, inside the windows that popped up, it looks like a separate Linux computer is running. It's easy to switch back and forth; you can do so with the click of a mouse.

One of the first things I had to decide was which distro (flavor of Linux) to use. Leading distros include Ubuntu, Mint, Debian, Fedora, and CentOS. I chose Ubuntu because it was (and is) popular, relatively stable, well-supported, and relatively easy for newbies to get into. I find Ubuntu running the Gnome desktop environment—I'm not going to bother explaining what that means, but different distros can run different desktop environments—to be a pleasure, as I'll explain later.

My precocious son H., then age 10, had already set up a VirtualBox VM, so I had his help installing Linux in one myself. Installing Ubuntu to a VirtualBox VM is not terribly easy if you've never done it before, but there are plenty of tutorials and free help to be found online. If you're moderately technical, you can do it. It's not that bad.

Why I decided to install Linux on a partition

I used Ubuntu in VirtualBox for a couple years. It was a great way to transition from Windows to Linux; I ran Linux on a VM when studying programming, and I ran Windows for everything else.

Then came 2018, with its stunning revelations and outrages by Facebook, Apple, Google, and others. With privacy and free speech—in short, digital autonomy—deeply under threat, I decided to lock down my cyber-life. (I encourage you to do the same.)

I'd wanted to run Linux on a partition for a long time (doing so is quite a bit faster and more seamless than a VM). But when all these giant, centralized corporations showed such contempt for our privacy (and thus our security) and free speech, I decided that I was going to do all I could to take my data out of their hands. Microsoft is and always has been terrible when it comes to security, but with Windows 10—though admittedly an improvement in UX—they jumped on the privacy-violating bandwagon. Windows 10 bothered me ever since it came out. Now finally I decided I'd have to do something about it.

See, I've always thought information privacy was important, but like many of us, I rationalized the increasingly jaw-dropping privacy violations and security failures by corporations (and government, for that matter) in the last ten years or so as the price we pay for awesome new technology. You know—awesome new tech like Facebook, Twitter, Google Search, Google Chrome, cloud storage, and a free but better-designed operating system like Windows 10 was (at launch). At first, all this seemed indeed worth the price. (Or enough to keep me from taking the privacy issues seriously.) But when these corporations (and government) over and over brazenly demonstrated just how much contempt they have for our information privacy and security, not to mention free speech rights, the bloom was off the rose. Something snapped, and I'm never going back to them.

Privacy matters. A lot. Facebook? Don't need it. I'll be switching back to good old-fashioned email groups soon. Twitter? OK, I might keep it around strictly for advertising purposes, but don't expect much in the way of personal sharing. Google Search? Meh, DuckDuckGo has come a long way and is as good as Google for most (still not all) purposes. Google Chrome is simply not better than privacy-respecting browsers like Brave (my preference) and Firefox. I'll be moving my data to a more secure solution than traditional cloud storage soon.

A few days ago, as I worked through my to do list, I finally decided it was time to ditch Windows and switch to Linux. I still have Windows available for things like Camtasia Studio (video production), but I really don't need it for most purposes.

The switch

There are five basic steps to the process of adding Linux to your Windows or Mac machine:

  1. Pick a distro.
  2. Put the distro on a thumb drive or DVD so you can boot to it from there.
  3. Create a partition big enough for the Linux distro.
  4. Install the Linux distro in the partition.
  5. Configure Linux so you can use it on a daily basis.

I won't explain how to do these things (there are lots of tutorials already available, like this), but here are a few notes. And for the non-techies out there who have bravely read this far, let me tell you: the hardest part of using Linux is installing it. Don't feel bad if you need to get help. Heck, I've installed it myself before my 12-year-old son was born, and I wasn't too proud to get a lot of help from him the second time around! If you don't have a family or friend who can help, and you have to pay a rent-a-geek, it'll be money well spent.

I discussed #1 above. Notes on #2 and #3: Creating a partition is a pretty simple process. But if you're going to use a Linux boot loader (i.e., the thing that tells your computer which operating system to load; I use Grub) then you'll first want to put Linux on a thumb drive, since it's typically quite small and easily fits, and boot to that. Then you'll probably use GParted (the Linux partition software) to actually do the partitioning. You'll want to make sure you actually know what you're doing (so, read up about potential pitfalls) before making any changes. It's also very important to make sure your must-have data is well backed up, because you might lose it. If you do it right, there's little chance you will; but there's always a chance. Also, make sure you allocate reasonable amounts of space to your respective partitions. You don't want to run out of space on either one.

As to #4, actually installing Linux, once the partition is ready, is the easy part. It takes a little while (i.e., waiting), then you set your time zone and a login (very important, as you'll use it a lot), then you're done!

The easiest part is #5, but you're not totally out of the woods yet. The Ubuntu Software app is like a free app store (it's not the only one, of course), and they've made it quite easy to install a lot of software. Especially if you're programming, though, you'll have to use the command line at least sometimes. The most important thing to remember here (and maybe for the whole process) is to do intelligent web searches for help whenever you need it.

There's nothing magical or particularly deep and difficult about any step of this process. It just requires a little bravery, lots of Internet searching, time, and patience, and you can definitely get it done.

So...how is it?

So far, I love using Linux (OS), Ubuntu (distro), Gnome (desktop environment) as my main workstation. I actually hate it when I have to boot up Windows. Not only does it feel clunkier (really) and more unnecessarily bloated, I can't stop thinking about how I don't know what data is being sent to Microsoft.

If you haven't tried Linux for a long time, let me tell you: it has changed a lot from the early days. It is not just more usable than it was, in some ways it is more usable than Windows or Mac, in my opinion, for day-to-day work. I mean, of course this applies if you can deal with a few technical challenges. But if you can, Linux is more usable not just because of the nicer UX available, but also because of how configurable Linux is. You can change almost anything on the system you want. You want a different look and feel? There are apps for that. You want a different sort of app store? There are alternatives. You want something simpler and leaner? Available. Something that looks and feels like Windows or Mac? Available, of course.

One big exception is in installing some technical software that, if you aren't a programmer, you probably won't need to install. If for whatever reason you want or need to start using the command line (for example, running Bash on a terminal like Gnome, as I said above), try this beautifully written tutorial. The command line isn't that difficult to learn, actually. The basics are rather simple once you get the hang of them.

Another big exception lies in the sometimes non-standard and quirky ways the software sometimes behaves. Again, this is much better than it was in days gone by, but quirkiness is still definitely a Linux thing. I guess I don't mind.

A final difficulty is that it has some occasional, and almost always very minor, operating system issues that simply would never crop up for Windows or Mac. This is probably one of the bigger problems and obstacles to wider adoption. I can give you an example from Ubuntu 18.04, which I installed: it has a "memory leak" problem that very slowly and progressively eats up your memory (over the course of days) until you have to reboot. This will be fixed in an update soon if it hasn't been already.

But enough of the negatives. One enormous positive that neither Windows or Mac is likely ever to be able to boast is that it's an operating system that respects your autonomy. You own your system, not Microsoft or Apple. You don't have to ask a giant corporation for permission to do anything. You don't have to worry about them invading your privacy, putting your data at risk of hacking, or censoring you. And you have all the tools you'll need to make the system just the way you like it. That might not sound like a big deal (and maybe it wouldn't be to you), but if you try it, you might find yourself delighted with all the options. I was.

In summary, here are the similarities and difference to a typical desktop (Windows and Mac--I have both) experience:

  • Browsing is exactly the same as in Windows (I use Brave).
  • My mail program is exactly the same (MailSpring).
  • Other apps, like Telegram, Slack, and more, are exactly the same.
  • My password manager is almost exactly the same (Enpass).
  • For the long tail of specialist software, most of it is free, and you don't have to worry nearly as much about downloading viruses. Linux is much harder to hack and hackers rarely try.
  • Finding and loading software is different. It's better in that most of the software is free and quite easy to find, and there's a lot more of it. It's worse, however, in that more technical software (at least, the stuff I use) requires comfort with the command line. This is a deal-breaker for some non-techies, I know. But I think most of the software non-techies use will be pretty easy to install. Ubuntu developers put a great deal of work into usability, and it shows.
  • A lot of the free/open source software for office work is "fine" but will strike experienced MS Office users as a little quirky and clunky in places. Office 360 doesn't run in some flavors of Linux except using Wine, which doesn't always work (my son uses Wine for some purposes). This is one reason I still have a Windows partition going. UPDATE: Wrong. I don't use Office anymore at all. No reason to. LibreOffice (both the word processing and the spreadsheet programs) is great.
  • Linux is generally lean and fast. Unless you install a particularly bloated distro, it's much faster than Windows or Mac on the same machine. This is a very nice benefit.
  • If you're a serious gamer, Linux won't satisfy you (yet). (Some gamers take issue with this, others don't.)
  • It can be subject to very occasional weird but non-serious crashes and problems solved with updates. Don't worry about this, really, it's OK.

Back in 2002 when I was using Linux the first time around, it wasn't really ready for prime time. But it is now. You kind of have to be able to search the Internet and read some technical help pages in order to learn how to use the thing, or get help from someone who can do this. It is, after all, another whole operating system. So, yes, there's still a learning curve. It's not a huge learning curve, though, and not nearly as big as it used to be.

Linux: it's not for just uber-geeks anymore. Admittedly, there is probably a minimum intelligence requirement. But in the not-too-distant future, we might well see a completely foolproof distro.