Tech Tips for a Hostile World

I’m not all the way through Kubler Ross just yet, but I’m starting to think about how to respond in a way that’s productive, engaged, and focused on reality.

I’m a tech person, so I’m gonna talk about tech things. There are people that are going to be able to talk to you about effective protest tips, effective lobbying, good organizations to send money to, and all those things. This isn’t about that.

One of the most important things in a hostile world is the ability to protect yourself, and your communications. I’m going to tackle this in a couple different pieces:

Encrypt Your Mac

In a world where the central authorities are scary, and where you might want to protect your data, it’s really important to have some level of data protection. I strongly recommend the Filevault 2 technology that’s built into macOS and Mac OS X 10.9 and later. If you have a laptop with fast storage (an SSD), you won’t notice a difference. If you have an older machine with a spinning drive, this will cause a 20% performance hit.

Your computer may have helped you turn this on already. Open System Preferences, go to Security & Privacy, and click on the FileVault tab.

You will see a message that is unequivocal about the status of your computer’s drive. If FileVault is off, turn it on.

When you turn on FileVault, as part of the encryption process, it will generate a key that can unlock your computer that is separate from your computer password. This is a failsafe key designed to get you back in if everything else has gone to hell. Your computer will offer to escrow the key with your iCloud account with security questions protecting it. You can provide security questions there, but know that any answers you give are case sensitive and will need to be provided to Apple exactly as they are written in order to recover that key.

I wouldn’t recommend this if you’re really concerned with security, though. I would strongly recommend you print a copy of that key and give it to someone you trust, or someone that is bound by contract to store it without turning it over, like your lawyer if you have one. You could probably talk to a trusted IT professional who would keep that key safe.

Use iOS’ Built-in Security

While the Black Jeopardy skit makes fun of using your fingerprint on your phone, saying “that’s how they get you,” the TouchID sensor on iOS devices – and coming soon to a laptop near you – is a remarkably secure technology. The TouchID sensor has a direct connection to the Secure Enclave co-processor on the device, which uses encryption techniques that even the FBI and NSA will have trouble working against. Your fingerprint is tied to your passcode, and without your passcode, on boot your phone will not accept your fingerprint as proof of identity.

That means if you’re in trouble, shut your phone off.

All of this advice applies only to personally owned phones. If you’re using a phone that work gave you, do not expect privacy on that device, and don’t sign into your secured services on a work-owned device. Work-related devices will often be enrolled in a Mobile Device Manager that your employer can use to clear your passcode and provide access to third parties. This is the end-around for the San Bernardino situation that saw Apple in court with the FBI. If the device isn’t 100% yours, it’s not something you should trust your privacy on.

Use Only End-to-End Encrypted Messaging

If you’re part of the overall iOS/macOS ecosystem now, iMessage is a technology that is encrypted from device to device, which means no one in the middle can decrypt those communications. When your device connects to the iMessage servers for the first time, it creates a set of encryption keys that are used in all future communications, and those keys are what keeps your communications secure. Every message is individually encrypted using those keys, and the public keys of the person you are talking with. No third party can read them. This is called end-to-end encrypted messaging.

Facebook’s WhatsApp also uses end-to-end encryption. Please be aware that Google’s Allo and Google Talk products do not use end-to-end encryption, nor does AOL’s Instant Messenger, nor is standard SMS encrypted. These are all technologies that can be warranted and searched, and shouldn’t be considered private communications.

Use a VPN

There are a lot of great options you have to protect your traffic from prying eyes at your internet service provider, or the ISPs of your favorite coffee shop or any other public place. I recommend Cloak which is $120/yr for unlimited data, and shunts your data traffic securely out to an Amazon instance. Their privacy policy isn’t perfect, but take solace in the fact that, at least for now, the FBI won’t be knocking on their door until well after the 16 day window for records expires.

There are other options for this, and I would encourage looking around. I’ll update this post with other suggestions.

Use a Password Manager

Lastpass, 1Password, the iCloud Keychain, these are all examples of password managers, designed to help you use unique and complex passwords to access your online accounts. It’s good practice to have a unique password for every service you use. Embrace this, and use a good password manager with a strong master password you can remember.

Use Two-Factor Authentication

Much as your ATM card is useless without the PIN you have memorized, if you’re using two-factor authentication (2FA), just having your password won’t be enough to get access. Your Google, Dropbox, Facebook, Twitter and other accounts can support 2FA, and if you want a step-by-side guide, there’s a good one at Turn on 2FA, and you can use that to help you. I’ve been using Authy on my iPhone, and it’s been pretty great so far.

Join Organizations That Will Fight For Your Privacy And Rights

We’re all just individuals, but when we band together, our powers for good can magnify. I strongly recommend picking some organizations to join and be part of to help fight the battle on your behalf. Here are some organizations I’ll be donating to:

You can pick your own, or join me with these three. Suggest more in the comments!

Never Surrender, Never Give Up

I’m pretty exhausted right now, and I’m not sleeping well, but I figured it might help to outline some things people can do to help improve their privacy in the face of a government that is increasingly hostile.

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