Joho the Blog[berkman] Dan Gillmor on living off the privacy grid - Joho the Blog

[berkman] Dan Gillmor on living off the privacy grid

Dan Gillmor is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk about his Permission Taken project. Dan, who has been very influential on my understanding of tech and has become a treasured friend, is going to talk about what we can do to live in an open Internet. He begins by pointing to Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet and Rebecca MacKinnon’s Consent of the Networked [two hugely important books].

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

He says that the intersection of convenience and freedom is narrowing. He goes through a “parade of horribles” [which I cannot keep up with]. He pauses on Loic Le Meur’s [twitter:loic] tweet: “A friend working for Facebook: ‘we’re like electricity.'” If that’s the case, Dan says, we should maybe even think about regulation, although he’s not a big fan of regulation. He goes through a long list of what apps ask permission to do on your mobile. His example is Skype. It’s a long list. Bruce Schneier says when it comes to security, we’re heading toward feudalism. Also, he says, Skype won’t deny it has a backdoor. “You should assume they do,” he says. The lock-in is getting tighter and tighter.

We do this for convenience. “I use a Kindle.” It makes him uncomfortable but it’s so hard to avoid lock-in and privacy risks. The fight against SOPA/PIPA was a good point. “But keep in mind that the copyright cartel is a well-funded smart group of people who never quit.” He says that we certainly need better laws, rules, and policies. “That’s crucial.” But his question this afternoon is what we as individuals can do. Today he’s going to focus on security countermeasures, although they’re not enough. His project â?? which might become a book â?? will begin simply, because it’s aimed at the broad swath of people who are not particularly technically literate.

“Full disk encryption should be the default. It’s not. Microsoft charges extra for it. Mac makes it pretty easy. So does Ubuntu.”

Disable intrusive browser extensions.

Root your phone. That’s not perfect. E.g., it makes you vulnerable to some attacks. But the tradeoff is that you now control your phone.

Dan blocks apps from particular permissions. Sometimes that keeps the app from working. “I accept that.” This is a counter to vendors insisting that you give them all the rights.

Use Tor [The Onion Router], even though “I assume some of the exit nodes” being run by the CIA. Tor, he explains, is a way of browsing the Web with some reasonable likelihood your ISP doesn’t know what you’re actually looking at, and what you’re looking at doesn’t know where you’re coming from.” This he says is important for whistleblowers, etc.

When loyalty cards came out, he and his friend used to randomly swap them to make the data useless. The last time he got one, he filled in his address as 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., and the guy in the store said, “It’s amazing how many people live there.” If you use a false address with a card, it may not work. If you do it on line, you’re committing a felony under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The revisions are going in the wrong direction. “This is terrifying…We have to do something collectively.”

Pick your platform carefully. “I was the biggest Apple person around…I was a Mac bigot for years.” At prss events, he’d be the only person (beside John Markoff) to have a Mac. Many things happened, including Apple suing websites wanting to do journalism about Apple. Their “control freakery” and arrogance with the iPhone was worse. “Now that everyone except me at a press event has a Mac, I get worried.” Now the Mac is taking on the restrictions of the iPhone operating system (IOS). “I want to do what I want with my own computer.” All computer makers are moving to devices that you can’t even open them. “Everyone wants to be Apple.”

Own your own domain. Why are journalists putting their work on Facebook or other people’s platforms? Because it brings distribution and attention. “We do these things on ‘free’ platforms at their sufferance.” “We all should have a place on the Web that is owned by us,” even if we don’t do most of our work there. Dan is going to require students to get their own domain name.

Dan says his book/project is going to present a gradient of actions. At the further end, there’s Linux. Dan switched last year and has found it almost painless. “No one should have to use the command line if they don’t want to,” and Linux isn’t perfect about that yet. “Even there it’s improving.” He says all the major distributions are pretty. He uses Ubuntu. “Even there there’s some control-freakery going on.” Dan says he tried Linux every year for 10 years, and how he finds it “ready for prime time.” He says some control features being introduced to Windows, for reasonable reasons, is making life harder for Linux users. [I’m not sure what he’s referring to.]

Dan says the lockdown is caused by self-interest, not good vs. evil. He hopes that we can start to make the overlap of convenient and freedom larger and larger.


Q: If you should have your own domain, you should also do your own hosting, run your own Apache server, etc.

A: You can’t be independent of all external services unless you really want that. There’s a continuum here. My hosting is done by someone I know personally. We really need systematic and universal encryption in the cloud, so whoever is storing your stuff can’t muck with it unless you give them permission. That raises legal questions for them.

Q: I really like what you’re saying. I’m not a specialist and it sounds like a conversation among a very small number of people who are refined specialists in this area. How do you get this out and more accessible? Could this be included in basic literacy in our public schools? On the other hand, I worry there’s a kind of individualism: You know how to do it, so you get to do it, but the rest don’t. How do we build a default position for people who can’t manage this for themselves.

A: Yes, I worry that this for geeks. But I’m not aiming this project at geeks. It’s more aimed at my students, who have grown up thinking Facebook is the Internet and that the MacBook Air gives them complete freedom [when in fact it can’t be opened and modified]. The early chapters will be on what you can do whatever it is that use. It won’t solve the problem, but it will help. And then take people up a ramp to get them as far as they’re comfortable doing. In really clear language, I hope. And it’d be a fine idea to make this part of digital literacy education. I’m a huge fan of CodeAcademy; Douglas Rushkoff wrote a wonderful book called “Program or Be Programmed,” and I think it does help to know some of this. [See Diana Kimball’s Berkman Talk on coding as a liberal art.] It’s not going to be in big demand any time soon. But I hope people can see what’s at risk, what they’re losing, and also what they gain by being locked down.

Q: Do you think freedom and convenience will grow further apart? What are the major factors?

A: Overall, the bad direction is still gaining. That’s why I’m doing this. I don’t think people are generally aware of the issues. It’ll help if we can get word out about what’s at risk and what the choices are. If people are aware of the issues and are fine with giving up their freedom, that’s their choice. We’ve been trading convenience of the illusion of security. “We put our hands up in scanners as if we’re being frisked.” There’s more money and power on the control side. Every major institution is aligned on the same side of this: recentralizing the technology that promised radical decentralization. That’s a problem. I’m going to try to convince people to use tech that doesn’t do that, and to push for better policies, but …

Q: What exactly are you concerned about? I feel free to do anything I want on the Internet. Maybe the govt is managing me. Marketers definitely are. I worry about hackers stealing my identity. But what are the risks?

A: “I think a society that is under pervasive surveillance is a deadened society in the long run.” It’s bad for us “in every way that I can imagine” except for the possibility that can stop a certain amount of crime. “But in dictatorships, the chief criminals are the govt and the police, so it doesn’t solve the problem.” The FBI wants a backdoor into every technology. If they get one, it will be used by bad people. This stuff doesn’t stay secret forever. The more you harden the defenses, the more room there is for really bad actors to get in. Those are some of the main reasons.

Q: How can Tor can help whistleblowers? Do you have other advice for journalists?

A: I have a chapter in a book that’s coming out about journalists and closed platforms. Journalists need to learn about security right away because they’re putting the lives of their sources at risk. The Committee to Protect Journalists has done important work on helping journalists understand the risks and mitigate them. It’s a crucial issue that hasn’t gotten enough attention inside the craft. although I had my PGP signature at the bottom of my column for 6 years and got 2 emails that used it, one of which said he just wanted to know if it worked. Also, you should be aware that you can’t anticipate every risk. E.g., if the US govt wants to find out what I’m talking about online, they’ll figure out a way to do it. They could break into my house and put up cameras. But like the better deadbolt lock stopping amateur criminals, better security measures will discourage some intrusions. When I do my online banking, I do it from a virtual machine that I use only for that; it has never gone anywhere else on the Internet. I don’t think that’s totally paranoid. There are still risks.

Q: The Supreme Court just affirmed first sale of materials manufactured outside of the US. Late stage capitalism want to literally own their markets, offline as well as online. How much of that wider context do you want to get into?

A: If the Court hadn’t affirmed first sale, every media producer would have moved all their production facilities offshore so that we wouldn’t be able to resell it. These days we buy licenses, not goods. Increasingly, physical goods will have software components. That’s an opportunity for the control crowd to keep you from owning anything you buy. In Massachusetts, the car repair shops got a ballot measure saying they get access to the software in cars; that was marvelous. BTW, I’m making common cause with some friends on the Right. Some of the more far-seeing people on the Right are way ahead in thinking about this. E.g., Derek Khanna. I will be an ally of anybody.

Q: [harry lewis] Great project. Here’s your problem: What are you worried about? This is a different sort of surveillance society. This is the opposite of the Panopticon where everyone knows they’re being spied upon. People won;t be motivated until there are breeches. The incentive of the surveillors is to do it as unobtrusively as possible. You’ll never know why your life insurance premium is $100 higher than my. You want ever see the data paths that led to that, because the surveillance will be happening at a level that will be ompletely invisible to the individual. It’ll be hard to wake people up. “A surveillance society is a deadened society” only if people know they’re being surveilled.

A: If they don’t see a consequence, then they won’t act. If the govt a generation ago had told you that you will henceforth carry a tracking device so we can where you are at any time, there would have been an uproar. But we did it voluntarily [holding up a mobile phone]. The cell tower has to know where you are, but I’d like to find a way to spoof everything else for everyone else. (You should assume your email is being read on your employer’s server, Dan says.)

Q: I worry about creating a privacy of the elite that only a small segment can access. That creates a dangerous scenario. Should there be govt regulations to make sure we’re all operating with the same levels of privacy?

A: It’s an important point. The govt rules won’t be the ones you want. We need to create a market-based solutions. Markets work better than advice or edicts.

Q: But hasn’t the market spoken, and it’s the iPhone?

A: The iPhone has important security features. But people aren’t scared enough to create a market.

A: The ACLU should be advised on how to create pamphlets that will reach people.

A: So much of hacker culture and open source culture are based on things being difficult. Many of the privacy tools work but are too hard to use. There is a distinct lack of design, and we don’t see poorly designed things as legitimate. And that’s a fairly easy thing to fix. A: Yes.

Q: Younger people don’t seem to care about privacy. Is there a generational shift?

A: There are two possibilities for the future. My hope is that we’ll all start cutting each other more slack; everyone will recognize that we all did unbelievably stupid, even possibly criminal things, in our 20s. I still do plenty of stupid things. But it worries me that cultures sometimes grow less tolerant. This could be catastrophic, if the country goes toward the Right.

A: There are tools to make it easy to do this. E.g.,, the Pirate Party. And are there alternatives to social media that are ready for prime time?

A: Still pretty geeky, but it’s a wonderful start. But many of the tools cost money.

Q: Any thoughts about ways to use govt and corporate interests to promote your goals. E.g., protect the children.

A: I’ll rename this Protect the Children and then everyone will do what I want :) Overall, the problem is that power is shifting, pulling back into the center. This has long term negative consequences. But speculating on what the consequences will be is never as effective as showing what’s going wrong now. I want the power to be distributed. “I’m pretty worried, although I’m a relentless optimist.” “I’m a resister.”

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