Privacy, Pt 2 — Apps and Serices
“We is faced with insurmountable opportunity.”
No matter how many times you’ve seen the exact scenario play out, the most exciting scenes from TV and movies continue to be when our heroes get backed into a hopeless situation — and then it gets worse. Not only does the velociraptor’s mate join the inevitable slaughter from the prey’s other side, from the darkness leap five crappy Jurassic Park sequels.
Of course, the heroes get miraculously saved. While there’s nothing surprising about these scenes – how could they be when they’re as common as peanut butter? — every damn time, from our comfortable distant seats, knowing full well that the threats are either computer-generated images or highly paid actors, our fight/flight hormones don their hero disguises and… remain seated. This plays out so often that there are probably script consultants who do nothing but write if you think you’re in trouble, now scenes. As it turns out, these same script consultants could have written the results of my research into corporate and government surveillance.
You’re trying to bring a modicum of digital privacy to your life, trying to get the degenerate memory of Facebook’s slutty affair with Cambridge Analytica out of your thoughts. You not only set additional privacy settings, to avoid Facebook’s more creepy grooming habits, you opt out of sharing. And then it gets worse. In spite of the no-end to Facebook’s sleaze and more sleaze, they may not be the sleaziest player. As Google tells it, “Google cares about your privacy,” from those who aren’t Google. Rather than take the easy way out by using DuckDuckGo, you respond by nailing down your Google privacy settings.
Facebook, Google, that’s the worst of it, is it not? You heard some bad stuff about your cell phone carrier, but there’s VPNs (virtual private networks) that will keep prying eyes from your search for the best sex toys for Rastafarians while high, Amirite? And you’ve heard that VPNs are the cure. You think so, and then it gets worse.
Legendary filmmaker, Orson Wells, told us we’re born alone and we die alone. Maybe in his era; today, not even. Make that call, send that email, text your friend. You’ll be joined by Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, Charter, Sprint, Frontier, T-Mobile, Facebook, Google, NSA, FBI, ICE, your local law enforcement agencies, and foreign espionage interests. If you still feel alone, it’s on you.
Can you make yourself a little more alone? If you really really try. Let’s take a look.
“No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.”
_ Helmuth von Moltke
In theory, privacy services and supporting apps come in several levels: (1) Secure from both government surveillance and surveillance capitalism. (2) Secure from only government surveillance. (3) Secure from only surveillance capitalism. (4) Privacy theater — that is, marketed as a privacy service, but is either too flawed to be counted on or is a fraud.
How to change your privacy habits
If you’re trying to change a habit, willpower is usually futile. To change a habit, limit your choices or make certain choices more difficult. For example, if you’re trying to cut down on sweets, don’t keep any in the house. Make it so you’d have to go out to get ice cream. You’ve set your situation where the easy thing is to not consume sugar.
Privacy Services and Apps
The best privacy-oriented apps take a similar approach, where the easy thing to do is to not disclose your private data, or in the Signal’s case, make it impossible — unfortunately, impossible, as we’ll see, the way Trump’s election was impossible. As with the U.S. Constitution, Signal does its part. As with the users of the U.S. Constitution, as we'll see, you can’t count on the users of Signal to do their part.
Signal from Open Whisper Systems (OWS) is a messaging app that can also be used for voice and video calls, and it's designed to be the most privacy efficient app of any kind, currently available. It gets better. (1) Signal is open source, so the privacy claims can and have been be verified, and (2) they were recently given a grant of 50 million dollars, which led to the creation of a non-profit company, Open Whisper Systems. The grant allows Signal to be in it for the long run.
While some of the big tech companies, such as Google, Microsoft, and Apple have fended off demands from law enforcement, they still can and do comply with specific subpoenas for user data they hold, if they can access it. Some of the data, such as iMessage content from Apple is encrypted, and law enforcement agencies have attempted to get Apple to give them the (software) key to Apple’s encryption, which, so far, Apple claims they’ve fended off. What makes Signal different is that it can’t give law enforcement, or anyone else, a key. In response to a grand jury subpoena:
... because of how the service is designed, OWS was only able to provide "the time the user’s account had been created and the last time it had connected to the service."
Imagine a lock company: if OWS was that company, they’d sell you a lock where you’d have the only keys to open it. If Apple was that company, they’d sell you a lock, give you keys, retain the master key, and refuse to give the master key to surveillance agencies.
Among the large tech companies Apple’s approach to its users’ privacy is currently the best, but what happens if a change in laws requires Apple to hand over user data? Would Apple CEO Tim Cook be willing to go to jail over Apple’s users’ privacy? Would Apple’s next CEO be of the same mind?
Is there a catch to Signal? Messaging services such as Apple’s iMessage defaults to send messages to another Apple Messages app.(iMessage is Apple’s service, Messages are the iOS and MacOS apps that use iMessage.) That’s how it’s capable of encryption similar to Signal’s. However, if you send an iMessage to a non-Apple user (Windows, Android, Linux), it gets sent as a SMS (short message service), that is, as an old-fashion unencrypted text message by your telephone service.1 (SMS texts are displayed in green rather than blue bubbles in Messages apps.) In contrast, Signal on iPhone can send messages to only other Signal apps. Not a big major drawback as Signal is available for iPhone, Android phones, and PC, Mac, and Linux on the desktop. However, the receiver must have Signal installed to receive the message.
As I implied above, there’s one other little catch to tech’s best privacy service — it’s users. You can set your sent Signal messages to disappear after a specific period. But, what if the receiver takes a screen shot of that newly-received message, and saves that screenshot to their iCloud storage? A search warrant would find an unencrypted photo of that message. You may have read about Paul Manafort’s alleged attempts at witness-tampering and how it was discovered. Either the FBI retrieved iCloud backups from less privacy-secure apps, or the receiver of Manafort’s message handed their phone to the FBI.
Android users can make Signal the equivalent of the Apple's Message service by setting Signal as their default messaging app.2
Signal-to-Signal is encrypted, and Signal to non-Signal users are sent as non-encrypted (SMS) texts. Unfortunately, there are millions of iMessage users and thousands of Signal users.
Most Android users probably use an app from Facebook, WhatsApp and/or Facebook Messenger. WhatsApp uses Signal’s encryption, so WhatsApp is (in theory) similarly secure, except it’s now owned by Facebook, and Facebook is now harvesting WhatsApp user data. Guess who gave Signal the $50 million? The creator of WhatsApp, who left Facebook over Facebook’s decision to harvest WhatsApp user data.
What’s Google doing about Android messaging?
Google continues its traditional app-of-the-month-club by getting ready to abandon Allo, just introduced in September, 2016. Like WhatsApp, Allo includes Signal’s end-to-end encryption, but it’s turned off, by default. Being Google, apparently, even the option of disallowing surveillance capitalism was too much. They’ve stopped development on Allo in favor of a totally non-encrypted service called “Chat.” The goal is to create a multi-carrier service. An easy-to-surveil messaging service should make everyone happy except its users.
If you care about keeping your messages private, whether from commercial or government snoops, you have one absolute solution in Signal, and a compromise for Apple with iMessage.
As I stated, WhatsApp’s encryption future is in flux, and the only reason to prefer it over Signal is that (being a Facebook app) you’ll have far more messaging partners.
iMessage vs Signal holds a different trade-off. Because the decryption key is held on your device, not in the cloud, if you lose your device, unlike with Apple Messages, you will not be able to restore Signal messages from a backup.
Ratings 1 - 5 (higher is better)
Orwells: Privacy from government surveillance
Tim Cooks: Privacy from surveillance capitalism3
Signal (for all platforms): 5 Orwells, 5 Tim Cooks
WhatsApp (for all platforms): 4 Orwells, 2 – 4 Tim Cooks (Just remember WhatsApp's effective encryption is in flux.)
iMessage (for Apple iPhone, iPad, and Mac: 4 Orwells, 5 Tim Cooks
Chat Google/cellular companies' universal messaging service (platforms unknown): 1 Orwell, 1 Tim Cook.
I was so close to switching my personal mail from Apple iCloud to Protonmail. Encrypted servers buried in a Swiss mountain, run by MIT geeks, with an attractive non-geeky, interface, a free version, though with inadequate memory for regular use, but an inexpensive paid version with plenty of memory. But I didn’t. First, all my research has convinced me that there’s no such thing as private email. Encrypted, buried in a mountain, can be secure when you send email to other Protonmail users. With the dominance of Gmail and Outlook, (and to a lesser degree, Fastmail, and iCloud), that’s unlikely to be often. Still, why not, I figured, be part of a a trend of gmail => protonmail.
Here’s why I don’t think that move will happen. Encrypted email on a server cannot have its content searched, only the From and Subject can be searched. That explains why Apple, so emphatic about user privacy, encrypts mail between servers, but does not encrypt mail on its server. Hence, I have a hard time believing that users spoiled by Gmail’s Google-competent search in their email will be content when they can’t track down that email from two years ago in their protonmail.4
Privacy from government
Regarding the PRISM surveillance program:
“The documents identified several technology companies as participants in the PRISM program, including Microsoft in 2007, Yahoo! in 2008, Google in 2009, Facebook in 2009, Paltalk in 2009, YouTube in 2010, AOL in 2011, Skype in 2011 and Apple in 2012. ... "98 percent of PRISM production is based on Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft".
Privacy from provider surveillance
As there’s no reliable privacy-email service, I’ll skip to the grades.
Orwells: Privacy from government surveillance
Tim Cooks: Privacy from surveillance capitalism
Protonmail: 3 Orwells, 5 Tim Cooks
Gmail: 2 Orwells, 1 Tim Cooks
Outlook: 2 Orwells, 5 Tim Cooks
Apple Mail: 2 Orwells, 5 Tim Cooks
Fastmail: 2 Orwells, 5 Tim Cooks
It’s easy to change your default search engine from Google to DuckDuckGo. Directions are on the Website. Don't expect any search privacy from the government.
Google: 1 Orwells, 1 Tim Cooks,
DuckDuckGo: 1 Orwells, 5 Tim Cooks
As with email, no browser will secure your privacy from a government agency that's determined to find what you're looking at, so I'd forego the often slow *Tor*: _Tor_ (The Onion Browser) and go for
Safari and Firefox: 1 Orwell, 5 Tim Cooks.
YouTube: It is the one Internet service that has no substitute. It may help to not sign in or sign out between uses.
YouTube: 1 Orwells, 1 Tim Cooks
Consider the companies that provide them.
All: 1 Orwells, 1 Tim Cooks
Generally, I’ve found Google Maps slightly more reliable in finding a better route, Apple a better predictor of travel time. Google owns Waze as well.
Google Maps: 1 Orwells, 1 Tim Cooks
Apple Maps: 1 Orwells, 4 Tim Cooks
While less embarrassing than in recent years, I don’t want anyone, even the NSA, to know that I'm a hometown fan of the Seattle Mariners. To read the baseball scores on the Web, in secret, my choices are to drive 3000 miles to eastern Canada, rent a room and jump on the Web from there, or switch on my VPN app and have my Internet surfing relay from a VPN computer in eastern Canada.
A VPN creates a tunnel from your computer device to a distant computer running VPN software. From your device to the VPN computer, your Internet use is private. However, your Internet use is transparent to the VPN service provider, so you do not want a free VPN service.
Virtual private networks, that was the plan. But since surveillance anxiety took off, many are now virtual profiteering networks; in this upside-down business, these providers advertise a free VPN service and sell the collected data. How did that happen? Any unemployed millennial living in his parents' basement, whether in Moscow or Michigan, can set up a VPN with an old PC and free software. If you fall for one of the many free services, you probably have one of those. Don’t fall for free, and make sure the one you choose has a good reputation.
There are significant discrepancies in price that don’t necessarily reflect differences in quality. I’ll make it easy for you. TunnelBear is inexpensive. I pay $50 for an annual subscription for five devices. It’s reliable and easy to use. I set it on auto, and I’m done.
On my Phone, I tested several highly-regarded services, and despite their reputations, didn’t find much difference in connection speed. Thewirecutter.com reported that only one service works properly on iOS (iPhone and iPad), but after testing and reading enough geeky literature that I should be rewarded with an honorary degree from MIT, and testing the apps on PIA’s own testing service, TunnelBear is equally secure while being more reliable.6
Very occasionally, my browsing stalls, so I switch it off and turn it back on periodically to check if it’s working again.
Some streaming video sites won’t work with a VPN. If you can’t stream Hulu or Netflix, turn off your VPN and you’ll probably be fine. Remember to turn it back on when you’re done watching.
A reliable VPN:
1 Orwells, 4 Tim Cooks
Aside from Apple and Costco, you’re probably screwed. For example, like most commerce sites that want to use the information you've provided, Amazon's default is to use the provided information and deeply bury the setting to opt out.
I haven't yet made this explicit; there's a difference between security and privacy. While there's overlap, in general, security is about keeping hackers from stealing your stuff; privacy is about keeping government and corporations from spying on you. Recall that my motivation in these two essays is to remind myself and others about our constitutional right to privacy and how that right serves democracy. And that even my concern for surveillance capitalism is how that practice accustoms us to regard mass government surveillance as normal.7
On to privacy apps and services. These are my opinions, only, no guarantees.
You’ll get the best privacy without significant drawbacks from the following, in order of privacy competence:
Apple: iMessage, Signal
Android and Windows: Signal
Several paid services. I use TunnelBear
Maps: Apple Maps
- Remember when you purchased a number of text messages from you cellular company? ↩︎
- Apple users can use only iMessage as their default messaging app. ↩︎
- There are many who are more dedicated to minimize surveillance capitalism than Tim Cook, but you probably never heard of them. ↩︎
- Protonmail has a special app, Protonmail Bridge app, that runs on you desktop operating system, and allows you to download your email to your desktop computer. On your desktop, Proton mail is unencrypted and can be searched. However, a newly-created mail service that depends on future users continuing to have desktop computers is a service that’s too geeky for the future. ↩︎
- The next release of Apple operating systems in September will come with built-in privacy tools. ↩︎
- I couldn’t connect in places that TunnelBear worked flawlessly. ↩︎
- I have nothing to add to the many articles concerned with Internet security, other than to use a password app and, occasionally, print out paper copies of your investments, bank accounts, and other important financial records. Retro, I know. DuckDuckGo "Internet security" for more information. ↩︎