A Little Healthy Paranoia

JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE PARANOID DOESN’T MEAN EVERYONE ISN’T OUT TO GET YOU. Nobody wants to be constantly looking over their shoulder, wondering if their kids are secretly informing on them to some three-letter agency. I’m not going to get into whether or not you should trust people, as I’m more interested here in not trusting computers. Being paranoid means being suspicious, examining systems and actions and getting creative about all the ways they can be used to keep tabs on us.

How paranoid you need to be depends largely on who you are trying to hide yourself from. If all you’re concerned about is your ex-girlfriend knowing where you are, then you probably don’t need to worry about all that time you’ve spent using grocery store rewards programs. On the other hand, if you’re about put yourself up against a nation state (like the good ol’ US of A) then however suspicious you are is probably not nearly enough. To get some idea, go watch Enemy of the State (yeah, I like the older ones). The plot may be fictional, but the technology is not, and it’s gotten better.

Let’s lay down some rules for how to think about privacy…

Rule 1: If the data is available, assume it is being collected and stored by someone
I mentioned grocery store rewards. Yes, every time you use one of those cards, the store is stashing away a list of every item you bought, what coupons you used, how you paid, and any other information involved in the sale. You think cash is anonymous? Every bill has a serial number, and it’s designed to be machine readable. Every time you click a link on a website, even every time you merely hover over a link, that information is being stored away. Security cameras, cell phones, badge readers – all these things and more are creating a digital trail of everything you do. This isn’t exaggeration – I manage a big data system like this.

This may seem like hyperbole, but look around next time you're out

This may seem like hyperbole, but look around next time you’re out

Rule 2: If one person has the data, they’re not the only one
Data is shared, both deliberately and less so. The only secure computer system is one that is protected by guys with guns, sealed in a block of concrete, and never turned on. And even that can be hacked. There’s a lot of data out there collected on you, and multiple people have it. The NSA didn’t build a giant datacenter in the desert to store cat pictures. We still need to be a little reasonable here: your ex-girlfriend probably doesn’t have access to all the security video from the entire city, but your friendly government spook certainly does. So if you’re dealing with normal people, be reasonable about what you believe they can acquire and then add a little. If you’re dealing with a government, just go ahead and assume that if the data exists, they have access to it. Because they do.

Rule 3: You have always forgotten a connection
Here’s a story for you. You want to purchase something anonymously. So you drive to an ATM and get some cash. The OnStar system in your car recorded your location at the ATM, as did your phone. You used your debit card and bank account that have your name on it, so your bank knows. The ATM owner also has that information, and they have a record of all the serial numbers of the bills. Plus there’s a nice video of your face. Oh, and there’s another security camera on the building where the ATM is, so the building owner has that one. That cash isn’t quite so anonymous now, is it? Eliminating all the connections can be downright impossible, so while the goal to eliminate them, the reality is we can only minimize them. In this scenario, it’s basically impossible to not link the cash with ourselves because we need to use a debit card to get it. So we can take that cash to another store (one we don’t normally go to) first and use some of it to buy some small things and get change. Maybe not drive there and leave the phone at home. Wear sunglasses and a hat. This may start to sound a little silly, but how far you want to go depends on how many connections you want to eliminate.

Rule 4: Learn to love a crowd
Crowds are your new friend. A crowd obscures what you are doing and gets information lost in a sea of competing events. You don’t want to stand out, and you definitely want to get yourself lost in that crowd. If you get on a subway train and ride it from one location to another all alone, that’s easy to track. If the platforms and the train are crowded, and lots of people get on and off at every stop, it’s a lot harder to figure out. If you also take a non-direct route, even harder.

Rule 5: Your private identity is a different person
This is very important – you are creating a new person (multiple people, if you’re really good), and that person does not have anything in common with you. They don’t have the same friends. They don’t go to the same places. They don’t like the same things. The more links you create between yourself and your anonymous identity, the easier it is to draw the connection between them. Once that’s done, you need to discard the anonymous identity and start fresh. This is why you hear about things like burn phones: it’s an anonymous device, but it’s only used once or twice and then discarded. After that, it gets replaced because otherwise it creates a set of connections of its own.

Rule 6: Be cautious of changing your current pattern
Related to the last rule, you want to be very careful about changing the pattern that you, the not anonymous person, have created for yourself. This can be a big red flag that results in scrutiny. Consider that if you reliably came into work every day at 9 AM, day in and day out, for years. One day, you come in at noon, and what’s the first thing that happens? Your boss says “Is everything OK?” Now imagine thousands of computers evaluating what you do and asking the same question. In general, if you need to make a change because of your new habits, you want it to be gradual, so it disappears into the noise.

None of these rules are perfect. There is no perfect security or privacy. What we are trying to do is obscure and distract, and do it with multiple layers so that we make it much harder on anyone who is watching to figure out what our end actions are. We have to think about these things before we embark, so getting a little paranoid and thinking through a set of actions and trying to imagine all the connections and patterns is an excellent exercise.

Next Up: Password Basics

Todd Palino


I'm a dad, a small business owner, a systems engineer, a developer, and any number of other things.

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