The Death of Trust
The tl;dr: Assume that anything you do online is being recorded by the government.
I had a conversation this past week with one of my students who was interested in some of the operational aspects of anonymity; he wanted to know to what extent either Tor or a VPN or both would protect his identity against varying levels of potential adversaries, from coworkers to nation-states. I think that we here in the USA forget that in many parts of the world, speech, especially dissident speech, can be extremely dangerous.
A recurring theme of this conversation was the notion of trust. For example, when we talked about how VPNs work and how they might be used to secure communications like IM or email, it came down to the level of trust that you have in the VPN provider. What if that provider is logging everything that you do across the VPN? Is the VPN provider susceptible to a Five-Eyes warrant to turn over those logs, or being monitored covertly? How do you know that the VPN provider isn’t really a government agency?
On January 21st 2017, literally millions of people united in marches across the country protesting against an administration that they see as a threat to their freedoms. Those protests were organized and promoted on sites and services such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google without, I’m guessing, much thought about who else might be collecting and collating this information. We willingly expose enormous amounts of information about ourselves, our thoughts, and our actions on these sites every single day. Can we trust them?
Edward Snowden showed us how deeply entrenched US intelligence agencies are in these sites, collecting, storing, and indexing nearly every message that flows through them. A body of secret law, interpreted by a court that meets in secret, ensures that these agencies can collect nearly anything that they ask for.
We have to assume that all of the email, texts, phone calls, and posts relating to today’s protests have been collected.
Do we care? On some level I suppose we don’t. We use these services, the Facebooks, the Twitters, the GMails, because they are convenient and efficient at reaching large numbers of people very quickly. For a large portion of our population, the ‘internet’ is Facebook. We post and tweet and like, not realizing that these posts and tweets and likes are used to create profiles of us, primarily for marketing purposes, but also for analysis by our government. I’m not saying that the NSA has a folder labeled ‘Perry Donham’ with all my posts and tweets collated in realtime, but I am saying that the data is there if an analyst wants to sort through it.
A photo from today’s march in Washington really struck me: Japanese woman at Washington protest 21 January 2017. In it an elderly Japanese woman holds a sign that reads Locked Up by US Prez 1942-1946 Never Again! There are US citizens still alive who were put into detention camps by the US government during the second world war. George Takei, a US citizen who played Sulu on the iconic series Star Trek, was imprisoned by the US government from the age of five until the age of eight. The reason? He was of Japanese descent.
We are entering unknown political territory, with an administration guided by the far right that will wield enormous technical surveillance assets. We literally don’t know what is going to happen next. It’s time to think carefully about what we say and do, and who we associate with, online, in email, posts, tweets, texts, and phone calls. We know that this data is being collected now by our government. We don’t know what the Trump administration will choose to do with it.
My advice is simply this: Every time you post or tweet or like, assume that it is being collected, analyzed, stored, and can be potentially used against you.
Worse, we’ve become dependent on ‘the cloud’ and how easy it is to store our information on services such as Dropbox, Google Docs, and Azure. Think about this. Do you know the management team at Dropbox? The developers? The people running the data Dropbox data center? Their network provider? You do not. The only reason that we trust Dropbox with our files is that ‘they’ said that ‘they’ could be trusted with them.
You might as well drive over to your local Greyhound terminal and hand an envelope with your personal files in it to a random person sitting on a bench. You know that person just as well as you do Dropbox.
I’ve been thinking a lot about trust and how false it is on the internet, and about how little we think about trust. In the next few posts I’ll look at how the idea of trust has broken down and at how we can leverage personal trust in securing our communications and information.