Information security

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It is an unfortunate fact of today’s culture (at least in the UK) that anyone living an unusual lifestyle – especially one that questions the dominant cultural stories – is liable to find themselves under observation by the authorities. Recent media revelations have covered everything from phone hacking to undercover cops infiltrating environmental groups for years at a time. The government campaign slogan declared, “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear”, but this is an argument that is long since discredited in academic and philosophical circles.

I’ll assume that you, dear reader, have nothing to hide. Does that mean that you are happy to send me your address and credit card bills for the past year? Or your health records? Or nude photos of yourself? Probably not. Our desire for, and right to, privacy does not imply that we have done something criminal or shameful, and our status as decent human beings should not mean that we are obliged to show everything to every authority who wants it. This is especially true when we consider how frequently these official databases are hacked and/or leaked to the world, and how inadvertent errors in such secret databases have led to people being jailed or having their bank accounts frozen without even being able to find out why.

There are valid arguments on both sides of the transparency/privacy debate, but they rarely seem to cut both ways. Are Google, or the police, keen to reveal all available information about themselves? No.

This book is not the place for a lengthy discussion on privacy, but my personal belief is that people should have the ability to decide for themselves how much of their information is tracked and stored. Accordingly, here are a few useful free tools for keeping your data secure.

DuckDuckgo and Startpage

If you don’t like the idea of corporations storing your information for any of a number of reasons then DuckDuckGo(234) is the search engine for you. It never stores IP addresses or user information and only uses cookies when absolutely necessary. Not only does this protect your privacy, it has two other benefits. First, you won’t get bombarded with advertisements that the algorithms constructed by those whose motto is ‘don’t be evil’ have worked out will appeal to some vulnerable aspect of your psyche. Second, you will be able to escape your ‘filter bubble’. Many people assume that everyone’s results on Google search are the same, but in fact the results it returns for each search you make are personalised based on over fifty indicators, including your search history and click history. So if you tend to click on things you agree with, Google will gradually demote (effectively filter out) more and more opposing information and differing viewpoints, leaving you less informed.(235) DuckDuckGo and other alternatives do not do this.

However, if you like the advanced search algorithms that Google uses, but don’t like them having so much information about everything you look at, Startpage(236) is an excellent compromise, as it allows you to utilise Google’s search results without allowing them to track your searches or record your IP address.

Hushmail

If you currently use a normal email account, you may as well just cc. in the police and MI5 to your emails, such is their ability to access your account if they suspect you of doing anything untoward – and remember, the authorities seem to classify almost anything that is helping to protect the community of life on this planet from the interests of corporations as untoward.

In truth, the only really secure way of sending email is to not send any, and use the more old fashioned methods instead. The woods, without your mobile phone even on you, is probably the only fully secure place left in this country to discuss something you want to keep private.

Below running off to the woods, on the scale of information security, is running your own server to host your email, but this isn’t sustainable in any sense of the word. The most realistic option is to get yourself a Hushmail(237) account. Hushmail encrypts your email before it is sent so that nobody other than those who are the intended recipients can read it, after they themselves have decrypted it by one means or another. In Hushmail’s words, “a typical email message is no more secure than a holiday postcard sent through the public postal system”, whereas with their system it is more like “a letter in a sealed envelope”. Hushmail doesn’t operate outside of the law, so do use it with that in mind. But privacy is central to everything they do, so they will fight for it all the way. They don’t, under any circumstances, release customer information unless they are issued with an order that is legally enforceable in British Columbia, Canada, where their servers are held.

TrueCrypt

If you like Hushmail and DuckDuckgo, you may also be interested in TrueCrypt.(238) This uses on-the-fly encryption to allow you to protect any files on your computer that you don’t want anyone else to obtain access to. As the government cracks down more on activists campaigning for a more sustainable, just and free world, tools such as TrueCrypt can play an important role in keeping those who have the courage to stand up to this system out of its prisons. It’s incredibly secure. The FBI spent a year trying to obtain access to TrueCrypt protected disks owned by Brazilian banker Daniel Dantas, who was under investigation for financial crimes, and were unable to decrypt them. If the bankers can protect themselves with it, activists may as well also. Just make sure you don’t lose your password, otherwise it could take the world’s greatest hackers years of work to enable you to access them again.