Since I started working from home, I have a little less time to listen to podcasts. DOn’t get me wrong, I am way happier saving a 90 minute (both ways) commute every day – but I do listen less than I used to. The one change to that is when I have to drive to Detroit for work meetings. It’s a little over 4 hours each way and at least one way each time I go, is outside of working hours, so instead of being on calls, I get 4+ hours of podcast time in. That was fortunate, since the Peace Revolution recently published one of their epic 10+ hour podcasts, this one on the topic of the surveillance state. I’ve only listened to the first 6 hours of it or so and am slowly working through the rest on my much shorter commutes to get my daughter to school each day. So far I have learned that the Binney, Drake and Snowden stories are more connected than I thought – they are actually all the same story. What’s more I learned that the NSA had an option to get the job done after 9-11 that would have protected people’s privacy (relative to what they did anyway) but chose to remove those protections. Its a double whammy when you not only do the wrong thing, but the right(er) thing was already done for you.
The net effect of the parts I have listened to so far have me once again thinking about privacy and security This isn’t the first time I’ve spent some brain cycles thinking about these issues this year. There was Heartbleed, the seemingly continual drip of the Snowden docs, a data break every other month or more at a major retailer and most recently a hullabaloo over the terms and conditions of the Facebook Messenger terms and conditions. However, the interviews with Binney and then Drake have me thinking about things a bit more seriously. I’m pondering if I should and if I can “go dark“.
I started writing this post in outline form with just some bullets of the major points I wanted to cover. The outline was 700 words. I’ve been posting longer form items here lately, but even I don’t believe that anyone will sit around and read 5K words from me, especially on this topic, so I’ve broken things up into at least 4 parts (there may be more as I write the other 3):
- why I am motivated to do spend time thinking about whether I should and whether I can go dark (part 1 = this post)
- An evaluation of what I can do from a desktop / laptop computing perspective to mute or mask my signals
- An evaluation of what I can do from a mobile (phone /tablet) perspective to mute or mask my signals
- An evaluation of what I can do for other things that give off signals
You’ll note that I make explicit mention of signals a few times. It’s hard for me to de-tangle security from privacy, but in general I think about it this way: digital security is all about protecting yourself from people that clearly want to do you or your property harm. Digital privacy is about protecting yourself from people that say they want to help you and may or may not be telling the truth. While I am concerned about my security relative to the first group, its my privacy relative to the second that has me writing this and the subsequent posts. That second group, which consists of governments and marketers, live on the digital signals we send out to either run a “tyranny for the good of its victims” or something worse.
Everyone online sends out digital signals every second they are online. Some are obvious and we are aware of (this blog post for example), some are less so (your entire inbox if you use Gmail for example) and some are downright obscure (Facebook reportedly keeps track of how you
self censor edit your posts as you compose them, before you post them). Governments and marketers consume these signals, tie them back to your “profile”, store them forever, run any sort of analysis they can and draw any conclusions they want.
I’ve heard the argument that you do the same in the “real” world – you have body language and facial expressions that give away far more away about what you’re thinking than the words that are coming out of your mouth and that’s true enough. The difference is in the scale. What we do in the real world is available to those in the immediate vicinity at the time we are doing it. It’s not recorded and made available to anyone as an accumulation over your whole life. What if when you met someone the first thing they asked you was why you smirked when your 6th grade math teacher asked you a question? What’s more, most people have a basic concept (if not necessarily a control) of their non verbal communications in person. Most of the same people have no idea about the signals that they are sending and what’s being done with them.
So, on to some of the arguments that have occurred to me in support of the idea that I should go dark:
- The first up is the axiom that a right not exercised is lost. I’m not exactly a fan of the constitution(the DoI is more my speed), but the bill of rights is at least a good starter list to reference. I regularly exercise my 1st and 2nd amendment rights, but I have been pretty lax exercising my 4th amendment rights. If someone wanted to search my house I am pretty sure I would ask for a warrant, but the Snowden documents have shown that the rules are different in the digital domain. I can’t be reactive if I want to exercise my 4th amendment rights for my digital signals – I have to take proactive steps.
- Then there is the reverse of argument that is trotted out by those that want us to be OK with living in a panopticon: “you don’t have anything to worry about if you aren’t doing anything wrong”. Well how about this, since I am not doing anything wrong I don’t need to be watched. What’s more, I’m would actually helping the folks trying to find the terrorists become more efficient by removing myself from the pool that they had to analyze.
- Then there is the logical analysis of that same statement (you don’t have to worry, if you aren’t doing anything wrong). I am neophyte logician, but it seems to me that is a classic example of an enthymeme (a logical statement where one premise, usually the most important one, is unstated). In this case the unstated premise not stated: the government defines whats wrong and can redefine it at any point in the future.
- Lastly their is the issue of avoiding manipulation. While the first three are mainly focused on the potential for the government to violate my privacy, this last one is focused squarely on marketers. While I don’t consider my self even a neophyte psychologist, I have read enough history lately to understand the impact of Pavlov and Skinner on the way modern marketing works. As marketers driven by those ideas get to know us better than we know ourselves based on our digital profiles, what chance will we have to say no?
A few other thoughts before I wrap up this first installment:
- I’ve focused on one of the questions I said I would in this post: should I go dark. I’ve skipped the issue of can I,until now. For one reason, the answer to that question will be found as I write out the next few posts, specifically what do I know to do, what are the limits and what am I willing to trade off. But even more importantly, I really don’t care if I can be successful. Anyone that reads this blog knows that I am more often than not armed. I do that, not expecting to be able to win any fight that I might find myself in – I pray that I never am in a fight in the first place, but rather because its a way I remind myself every day that I am responsible for me and those around me. To me trying to dark is the same: its the effort and the recognition of what it means that matters.
- The irony of this whole conversation when put into the context of one of the major parts of my JOB is not lost on me. I spend 8-10 hours every day that I am working coming up with digital marketing strategies for the things the company I work for sells. You may be thinking that if everyone thought about this issue the same way I am and did any of the things I am thinking about doing, it would make that part of my job, much harder and maybe even impossible. But I think you are assuming that I am going to go Amish, rather than go dark. This isn’t about cutting off all connections, rather its about being much more deliberate about my signal footprint and only creating signal when (a) I know the extent of how it will be captured and used and (b) what I get back is worth it.
- Last, what really bothers me most of all is that I have no idea how I will ever help my kids understand any of this. My signal footprint goes back to the mid 90s when I was in my mid 20s. In theory their’s could have existed for almost a decade and they are both in their early teens. I’m not kicking them off technology, but I worry that they don’t value or appreciate what they are giving up in exchange for all the “magic” and they have no idea how it all is and will be used against them.
Stay tuned for part 2 – an evaluation of what I can do to go dark in my desktop / laptop computing. (PS – I find it a strange coincidence that my MacBook crashed hard right in the middle of writing this 😉