It’s time to get serious about personal privacy

in Uncategorized
November 22nd, 2016

Today as I was driving my dog, Maggie, to the park for her afternoon walk, a pickup truck pulled up behind me at a stop light. I wouldn’t normally think twice about the car behind me, but this one had a very obvious Automated License Plate Reader (ALPR) mounted on the dash, and I could see the driver behind me fiddling with it. My assumption was that he was either enabling it or saving a capture of my plate.

If you don’t know what an ALPR looks like, the next time you see a BU Parking Services truck go by, look for two rectangular devices mounted to the roof, one on each side. At BU they are used to ferret out cars that are parked in lots where they shouldn’t be…the truck drives up and down the rows, scanning plates, comparing them to the Parking Services database of pass holders.

I’ve lived in my town for going on a decade now, and I’m familiar with the law enforcement vehicles in use here. This wasn’t one of them, and there were no markings to indicate that it might be from another town or perhaps a state vehicle. My take was that it was a private vehicle.

Why was this person reading my plate?

I have a Johnson/Weld sticker on the back of my car. My very first thought was that someone wanted to know who I am, maybe because of my political affiliation.

I understand that this sounds like a paranoid conclusion. However, consider two points:

  1. Under the Obama administration, the power wielded by the NSA, FBI, and CIA have grown to unprecedented levels. Ed Snowden revealed a small part of the domestic surveillance being undertaken by these agencies, and they made headlines for about one week. Afterward the country moved on to who was winning Dancing With the Stars. Our government is intercepting every email, text message, and phone call made in this country. Eavesdropping warrants and gross violations of our privacy are approved by a secret court. We are murdering innocent people by silent drone attack in sovereign nations on a regular basis. As a country we just don’t seem to care.
  2. The incoming Trump administration does not appear to be pro-privacy. In fact, they seem quite the opposite. Donald Trump is being handed a domestic surveillance capability unsurpassed by any government and I believe that he will use it to its fullest extent. Worse, a naive, unskilled Trump administration combined with our current public apathy is the perfect environment for our intelligence agencies to aggressively attempt to expand their reach.

In this environment, an active ALPR mounted in an unmarked vehicle recording my plate is a threat.

The question is, then, what to do? To this point privacy advocates have encouraged us to secure our email, and chat, and voice messages, but with the caveat that yes, it’s not always easy, and yes, this is how you should do it but we understand that you probably can’t because it’s too hard.

It’s different now.

I’ve always assumed that my emails, my phone calls, and the web sites I visit are recorded. Not because I’m someone that needs to be watched … it’s just that I understand, based on the evidence I’ve seen, that everyone’s information is being recorded. I’ve advocated for privacy while personally falling short — I’ve fallen victim to the ‘too hard’ argument, and to the idea that my small voice will be lost in the cacophony of an entire country’s worth of data.

It’s different now.

I can only be responsible for myself. Encryption is now my default. I’ve encrypted the disks on my computers, and all of the backups. I’m actively encouraging everyone that I regularly message¬†with to switch to Signal, which encrypts text messaging end-to-end. I’ve migrated from Apple Mail to Thunderbird because the latter better incorporates email encryption. I’ve switched my default search service from Google to DuckDuckGo because the latter promises to not store my online search history and is secured with HTTPS. My voice calls are made using Facetime rather than the standard cell phone connection because Facetime is encrypted end-to-end. I find myself using Tor more and more often (even as I acknowledge its shortcomings).

Even though I have nothing to hide, I am hiding everything.

It’s different now.

If you need help securing your personal communications, I am happy to help. You can reach me at perryd@bu.edu; if you are able, please encrypt your email. If you aren’t able, I can help with that, too.

 

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