the new ‘safe sex’
i grew up in the decade that saw the rise of the AIDS epidemic. the concept of safe sex was drilled in my head by parents who had known the “good ol’ days” of peace & love gatherings and all. while it is true that AIDS still represents a very serious threat, the dawn of the information age has brought on a new generation of sometimes life-threatening dangers. before cellphones and the internet became household commodities, “evil forces” had to plant spies everywhere, at a very high cost, to monitor every move of what they identified as potential troublemakers. today, they need only need a few geeks in a dark basement to know where you are, who you talk to and what your cousin’s baby had for breakfast.
for all the beauty of life 2.0, there are also serious pitfalls. they can be avoided, of course, but not without taking some serious precautions in the way you share thing on the web. on the second day of the tenth civicus world assembly, in montreal, i attended a workshop by freedom house‘s internet freedom project director, robert guerra, and carmen algeciras, of the development research center, where i learned that there are many steps to be taken if you want your ride on the information superhighway to be as safe as possible.
the problem is not that it is in and of itself dangerous to navigate the web, but the ease with which you find the answer to any trivial question by typing a few words in google also applies to people who would love to know a few things about you. this can become particularly treacherous if you are a (pardon my words) shit-disturber trying to mess up some organisation or state’s well-laid plans. your naïveté or your organisation’s laissez-faire, if you work in a politically sensitive area, could also put at risk the lives of the very people you are trying to help. as mr. guerra bluntly presented it, embarking on a facebook smear campaign against the powerful without some basic precautions is nothing short of suicidal. and there are examples to prove it. many.
other participants in the workshop — mostly seasoned international development workers — all had horror, almost james bond-like, stories to tell. beyond the anecdotal, these testimonies show that you don’t have to be engaged in coup d’état planning to become the target of malignant action. cellphones, for example, can be remotely controlled to turn on and start recording your conversation. every internet query you send goes through so many hands that it’s basically public by the time you get your answer back. it doesn’t even have to travel that far if you are on a wireless network.
so what can you do? well, just like safe sex, it all starts with your head: think before you act. if you fear you could be followed or the target of electronic eavesdropping, don’t carry your cellphone unless you can take the battery out. same thing with chat and email: don’t share unless you know it’s safe to do so. the more sensitive and potentially compromising the information, the more cautious you need to be. but if you deal counterparts in china and other states with dubious human rights, don’t assume they are as safe as you are. any information you send their way could prove fatal to them.
most mainstream services out there (google, facebook, twitter, etc.) offer some level of security, but it’s often disabled by default so you need to put in some legwork. protect your passwords, use https everywhere for firefox and activate two-step verification when possible. there is a plethora of resources and specialised services out there to help you achieve higher levels of security if you need it. here are a few that mr. guerra recommended:
- the adventures of super peif, a belorussian comic book the equivalent of “online security for dummies” (english and russian translations available)
- the surveillance self-defence guide of the electronic frontier foundation
- the security-in-a-box project offers tools and tactics for the digital security and privacy needs of advocates and human rights defenders
- 12pmtutorials show you how to use internet privacy and anticensorship tools
- vaultletsoft offers a secure email and document management alternative to gmail and dropbox, cool features like self-deleting messages and free licensing to NGOs
you wouldn’t cross a highway without at least looking both ways — unless you’d really like to experience what it feels like to be the famous deer in the headlights. so do your homework before you jump into the fray. as technologies evolve (and we all know how fast they do), great opportunities arise for larger networks, better coordination and faster action, but, as we virtualise more and more of our data, its very mobility becomes our achilles heel. always keep abreast of new developments. people with malicious intentions are certainly looking for novel ways to hurt you, or at least take advantage of you (take ransomware as an example). for those of us that live in safe political environments, the worst thing that lax management of our privacy can lead to is identity theft (and god knows it is by no means fun), but in some countries, it may mean the difference between life and death — something i, for one, find rather important, especially when it comes to planning my next holiday.
Photo credit: San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives