I haven’t linked or talked much about the latest news regarding the NSA, PRISM, or Edward Snowden’s leaks. Truthfully, I’m unsurprised and feel this changes nothing about the current state of privacy and technology. People are overreacting only because ignorance is bliss. Anyone even truly familiar with what networked technologies can do are simply reaffirmed of suspicions we’ve had for years.
Yet, here we are, and suddenly people are wanting to take personal privacy seriously again in the day and age of modern technology and wired everything… yet they refuse to let go of that technology. They don’t get that their adaptation to these devices are the root reason why they’ve lost their privacy to begin with. NEWSFLASH! The NSA can easily spy on what you do and who you do it with because you make it easy to do so by posting your life to Facebook, texting your conversations, and generally using technology to communicate the banalities of your life. Your insistence and reliance upon utilizing technology for personal gossip is what’s violating your own privacy and the privacy of those around you.
Rounds are being made and much hulabaloo is being spouted from the F/OSS community about how you can continue to use modern technology without the NSA spying on you through online mega-corporations. To these ends, I noticed an Ask Slashdot article pop up a little while back asking, “How To Bypass Gov’t Spying On Cellphones?” My lovely wife was reading over my shoulder and immediately quipped, “Write a letter and send it through the USPS! They’re too poor to dedicate the manpower necessary to spy on your communications there!” I about fell out of my chair laughing… but she has a point.
Since we talk technology here with a thrust towards using it as a tool and being less dependent upon it, let’s chase down this rabbit hole of how to be more secure and how to keep private communications more private!
Nothing to Hide?
As others have pointed out over the years and especially echoed and brought back up recently, there is a fallacy to the argument that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Unlike the human mind, recorded conversations are forever so long as they can continue to be accessed. People are inconsistent and change, though. We are fluid and emotional creatures, and our minds are designed in such a way as to forget a lot of this sort of knee-jerk emotional flotsam. Why? Because if we couldn’t, it would destroy family, friendships, and civilization. We forget, and that’s a good thing… especially today as we’ve become a society afflicted with diarrhea of the mind. Unfortunately, the virtual panopticon that we’ve created in networked communications technology no longer lets us do that, especially governments. Normally, within context, many things recorded in this fashion can typically be reasonably explained and understood by the folks involved even if many of them have not but would like to forget. There’s the danger, though: context, or more specifically, a lack of context.
After all, Cardinal Richelieu said it best: “If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged.”
A great example of how dangerous this point is can be witnessed within the raft of various Judaeo-Christian denominations. Context is everything, yet mankind loves to extract and break items down into these sound-bite morsels. This isn’t to say that all do this, but we have entire denominations that have been built upon surgically extracting and divorcing passages of scripture from its context to prove whatever point they want to defend in their brand of belief. A great example of this is cited in my own Statement of Faith page with Romans 6:1 through 8:17 and how people take snippets of that combined with other passages removed from its own context from Galatians to say the exact opposite of what Rabbi Shaul (Paul the Apostle) was teaching the group of gentile believers in Rome. However, let’s take this technique to an even greater extreme using that same logic to not only defend suicide, but claim Yeshua has commanded traitors to kill themselves by using Matthew 27:5b and Luke 10:37b together. As you will see, by taking things out of context, we can make any recorded text say anything we want, and that’s the danger of humans with surveillance and the inability to forget. If I can make the Bible say, “Then [Judas] went away and hanged himself … Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.'” through this method nearly 2000 years after the fact, imagine what a government might do when you cheese them off with their massive surveillance databases.
So, yes, there is clearly prudence and wisdom in not recording your every whim and thought, as basically what this surveillance society and the recordings it has can be distilled down to is nothing more than gossip in its application. Unkind things can be said about gossips, even scripturally. If privacy and security are of concern, then we as a society should learn a bit of wisdom in how we conduct ourselves in general, and especially online. Let us not be loose lipped, over-share, or disparaging of our kinsmen. Let us reject our predilections to schadenfreude and celebrity gossip. Yeshua’s golden rule applies here, that ultimate embodiment of all the laws outlined in Torah second only to completely Loving G-d: Love your neighbor as yourself.
You want to protect yourself from snooping and increase your personal privacy? Don’t immediately look to solutions through encrypted communications and so-called “darknets”. Learn the value and importance of communication as a tool, and learn to hold your tongue (and fingers) when necessary. If you’re concerned that certain conversations of yours might be used against you, perhaps you should consider the wisdom of having those conversations at all if there’s no greater or specific purpose or necessity to them. Start there.
Extra irony points: someday, portions this post (or site in general) could quite possibly be used against me. Circle of life!
Everything Old is New Again
Now that we’ve adjusted our thinking and attitudes about general communications, let’s visit the heart of the issue: making our communications more private and less prone to sharing. We’ll start with the rather silly question from Slashdot earlier:
“I’m concerned about privacy! How do I keep my cellphone from being used to track me and monitor my conversations?”
This one is simple… don’t use it. Turn it off, and take out the battery. It’s a mobile communications tool. Either you learn to use it as a tool and continue to use it intelligently as such until the risk outweighs the benefit, or you can hide in fear of the tool doing one of the things it’s designed to do – tell databases where you are and who you’ve talked to. How else do you think billing on a pay-to-use mobile communicator works?
“How can I have conversations with others in private?”
Outside of the same suggestions repeated above for other forms of technological communications, try meeting with people in the same physical location! Talk to them. Not their phone, not their Facebook page, but the person you want to share ideas and information with face to face.
“What if they’re too far away to meet up with in the same area? How do we keep our conversations private then?”
It was said jokingly before, but let’s be serious about this. Letters. Real, physical, honest to G-d, hand-written letters sent through the postal service. You know what makes data harvesting so easy to do with modern technology and communications? It disseminates at nearly the speed of light and its ability to be infinitely reproduced and stored is nearly effortless. This isn’t to say that you couldn’t potentially be targeted and spied on with your physical letters sent through the USPS, but the odds of it being randomly scraped for information and cataloging is significantly lower because real physical effort is required to glean that information… and let’s face it, you’ve seen the modern state of the USPS, right? These people don’t have the manpower and the facilities to mount huge spying operations on behalf of the NSA; they barely have the budget and manpower to deliver the junk mail your under-appreciated letter carrier has to schlep to your mailbox every day! You want more secure remote communications? Use the price of a stamp to help you dictate how important it is to share the information you want to. Also, it’ll teach you the virtue of patience and the value of writing. Patience is an especially good thing, and in short supply these days.
There is value in treating your technology like a tool instead of slavishly obeying its every whim to entertain and distract you… or as a means to inflate your sense of ego. Do I believe we’ve hit a point where having the technology at all is a risk that outweighs the benefit of the tool? Well, I’m still here, aren’t I? I said that these “revelations” change nothing, including the level of surveillance I was already aware of, didn’t I?
The truth is, a day will come (if it hasn’t already for some) when this technology becomes shackles, but only if you let it. Any tool can become a liability in the right or wrong hands as the case may be. There are things you can do to lower your visibility if you’re genuinely concerned about your privacy by making it harder to collect information about you. You can start to do that by being less dependent upon technology to live and to survive, and yes, even by using technological tools that do utilize certain levels of cryptography and don’t depend upon mega-corporations and always-on internet services to communicate through if necessary.
One could argue that you’ll never see the noose until it’s already around your throat. In a way, it’s true. Even if we collectively changed our habits today following my recommendations to the letter, there’s still years of pre-existing material that can be dredged to hang any of us at any time in the future. That genie was out of the bottle a long time ago… you just didn’t know it yet. It’s likely not to be used against you right now with our current leadership, or likely even within the immediate future. People scream from the rooftops about tyranny in this country and point to these events to justify those claims. Brother, you ‘aint seen tyranny yet. A day may come though that that information will be used against you, but odds are, only if you get branded as a troublemaker. We have, after all, created a society and a set of laws that theoretically makes every last person breathing guilty of something.
We’re humans, we’re sinners, we’re screwups. It happens, and it wouldn’t matter if that particular trail was there or not. That is a truth that gets exploited with human dictatorships in these sorts of dystopian situations. And do you know what I have to say to that? Fear not the judgment of your fellow man, but only that of your creator. He knows your heart better than anyone.
All we can do is get right with HaShem and seek His forgiveness, because when you have… that does give you true freedom and a boldness in life that allows you to shake these fears, even in the face of Earthly persecution by people who aren’t near as forgiving.