To me, the word “encryption” sounded sinister until very recently, when I realised I’d have to take the consequences of what we are seeing these days. And guess what: digital protection – even encryption – isn’t difficult at all. There are programs that do it all for us. I believe that what I am proposing in this and the following post need not even make a dent in anybody’s wallet.
In view of the medieval state of race relations in the US, and bearing in mind Mr Trump’s penchant for decisive action, I think we should not place too much trust in the rule of law in the US, for instance. It’s a good idea to be prepared.
In general, in a world that is increasingly being governed by individuals who label political opponents as “criminals” or even “terrorists”, we should think of the consequences of such labels, not necessarily for ourselves – at least not yet – but for reasons that I will return to a few paragraphs further down.
Many of our rulers are willing to resort to what we in the west recently (i.e. pre-Snowden) considered “the unthinkable”, to stay in power and, in many cases, to improve their financial leverage.
There is also a rising number of people who are learning the tricks of cybercrime. For all you know, your next-door neighbour might be one of them, in which case he or she may be particularly interested in your WIFI network.
Most of us are not terrorists or criminals, although we might be leftist or Moslem or environmentalist or black or even Mexican. We might, however, be deeply dissatisfied with our rulers, and we might even be organised, say in an activist civil rights group. Organised opposition has always been regarded as a threat, or at least a nuisance, by the powers that be, and is now becoming increasingly risky. In many countries, of course, it has always been deadly dangerous. What’s new is that the number and potency of tools to penetrate people’s private (digital) worlds have grown exponentially over the past years.
What’s new, too, is that year by year, in all countries, law enforcement and secret services are being given wider powers to use these tools. This is quite understandable because, after all, there is a real threat of terrorism, and there is a real and growing threat of serious cybercrime.
Meanwhile, political improvement is contingent on our all understanding as much as possible of what goes on. Some journalists, social scientists and whistle blowers are putting their necks out to protect us by uncovering the crooked acts of cynical rulers and magnates. By doing so, they risk their lives in many countries, and in others, including mine, they risk finding themselves without a job.
We need them. We desperately need them! Only by knowing what is actually going on, by being able to dismiss false rumours, libel and “post-truth” propaganda (see Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year), do we have any chance of improving the world we live in. They – the journalists and social scientists – hopefully know how to protect themselves, but by doing so, they will inevitably seem suspicious: “Why is NN encrypting his stuff? Why is that woman using a VPN server? Are they terrorists?”
Since they are trying to protect us, the least we can do is to try to protect them, in essence by protecting ourselves.
If only to protect our bank account information, password lists, copies of passport and driving licence, intimate letters and pictures etc., we should start thinking about digital personal protection. When we started using email, in my case in the late eighties, it seemed very difficult. We had to put a lot of effort into it. These days, it’s all so easy that kids are social media experts before they can add and subtract. Did we think this was the way it would always be? If so, our thinking was flawed: Sic transit gloria mundi.
Sooner or later, the alternative to using only pen-and-paper may well be to encrypt everything; computers, phone calls, email, social networking – the lot!
Meanwhile, there are a few very basic steps we should take, apart from everything we hear every day (e.g. being wary of links in emails and on websites). The measures cost us a few extra seconds, but then again – let us not forget how very, very much more time-consuming everything was, just ten years ago.
- Text messaging encryption. Thanks to Edward Snowden, Signal has become quite a hit. It’s so seamless that once you’ve installed it, you won’t notice you are no longer using your phone’s stock SMS app, except that it’s faster and doesn’t hang.
- Wifi router protection
Wifi routers must be new enough to yield so-called WPA2 protection (at least).
- “Anti-virus” software
You should not rely entirely on Defender, if you are using Windows. There are several excellent and powerful anti-virus protection schemes that are free.
- VPN (Virtual Private Network)
If privacy protection is an issue for you — and to my mind it should be, if only for the reasons given above conceal your IP address. This is probably one of the most important steps to take if you are a fact-hunting dissident. Many services provide access to VPN servers in various countries, and competition is fierce. Most of the best services are no entirely free, though, or rather, those that are tend to plague you with adds or restrict your bandwidth. On the bright side, most of them now require no technical know-how, just that you press a button. There are numerous lists of “best VPN” services, free and non-free.
- Storage on external drives
Store as little as possible on computers, tablets and smartphones. (Plug in your external drive and move private stuff to it, then remove the external drive at once.) If you don’t use cloud storage, this should do (assuming your computer doesn’t have digital parasites lodged in its entrails, your external hard drive is securely stored and never leaves the house, and the house never burns down).
Most people use cloud services these days, if only to transfer files. Besides, people are often more or less unwittingly constantly connected to their operating systems’ “Store”, storage spaces, sharing services, etc.and to social services.
- TLS/SSL protocol
Respectable cloud storage services use a TLS/SSL protocol for data transfer (HTTPS://). That isn’t much, but better than nothing.
Some services encrypt your stuff already before it leaves your computer. They say that you risk nothing and that they have “zero-knowledge” (about you and your stuff). This sort of service is used by companies. But why not do your own encryption before uploading anything to your cloud. with good software, it’s a cinch! So:
- What is good software? Since good encryption depends not on your software, but on the algorithm used by the software, the software you want will depend on whether it is easy to use, can relate to your operating system and serves your needs in other respects. Leading encryption programs all use basically the same algorithms, the best known of which is AES (developed some 20 years ago).
- Veracrypt is one such (free) cross-platform program (i.e. for Mac, Windows, Linux, but not for mobile systems). I am mentioning it not least as it is the program used in the following link which I am including to demonstrate how very easy it is to encrypt whatever files you want to keep out of any private or public eye: encouraging demonstration
Phones and tablets
Being an open system, Android is more vulnerable to malware attacks than are IOS devices. Over the past two years or so Android has been rocked by some pretty serious security issues, e.g. “Stagefright”. So serious were they, in fact, that phones that come with Marshmellow (or newer) installed are supposedly encrypted by default (!) Yes, you read correctly, by default. In other words, Android is not taking any chance, nor should you, so encrypt!
Older phones, with Android versions from Gingerbread up, can optionally be encrypted. Details about how to do this may vary depending on your phone and version, but this guide gives an idea.
IOS phones have been encrypted by default for a while. Older phones can also easily be encrypted.
Some people will want to encrypt their entire computer. If so, they will probably have used their operating system’s tools for doing this. (BitLocker on Windows, and FileVault on MACs). Encrypting flash drives is, if anything, all the more important since they tend to get lost or forgotten.
- The same tools as for computers
BitLocker (Windows), FleVault (Mac)and, again, Veracrypt, can encrypt flash drives (USB sticks).
Here is one of many guides.
In my next post I shall touch upon sharing (most importantly by email) with PGP.