Once again I’m breaking a long, detailed screed into a two parter. I really have to stop splitting multi-part series into multi-part mini-series. But not just yet.
Many years ago I got a mocking write-up in one of the big national tabloids for suggesting that someday freedom lovers seeking private communications might resort to carrier pigeons.
I’d made the remark only in passing (in a book chapter having to do with many alternate forms of covert communications, from modern adaptations of hobo sign to dead drops). But apparently I’d managed to come up with an idea so ridiculous that even a supermarket tabloid thought it was too stupid to take seriously.
Well, welcome to 2021.
Are carrier pigeons sweeping the nation? No (except as a classic hobby). But we’ve reached the point where we’re so weary of our communications being surveilled — and increasingly, ominously controlled — by totalitarians that smart people are madly casting about for alternative private communication methods.
Among people in my sphere, at least, those casts are between seeking more advanced privacy tech and an angry rebellion against tech altogether.
On one hand, libertarians have always been enthusiastic tech creators and early adopters. On the other, I’m surprised at the number of people I hear from who’ve either abandoned or downgraded tech’s role in their lives — for instance, giving up smartphones in favor of 90s-style dumbphones or getting rid of home internet. The return of message-carrying pigeons is not out of the question.
But why do we need alternative communications of any kind, high tech or low? And how ardently do we need them? If we’re merely sick of being spied on or worried that in theory censorship will eventually become as bad as in the old Soviet Union, that’s not enough. It’s headed in that direction, no question. We’re weary and angry about being more heavily surveilled than East Germans ca. 1970. But we appear still to have time and surely, surely, we tell ourselves, someone will put a stop to the abuses before they get that bad.
No they won’t. We’re the only “someones” who’ll stop it and most of us aren’t sufficiently motivated yet.
In the very first installment of this series, I noted that developing new freedom-focused systems to replace the broken, abusive systems of the oligarchy is going to be hard. I said using them could be dangerous, and that unless we have a passionate commitment to taking back our lives and our freedom we won’t prevail.
But just last week I also said (with help of a lovely graphic from Dr. JB) that communication systems are among both the easiest and the lowest risk alt-systems.
Contradiction? Actually no. Just complications.
- High-tech private communication systems are easy because unless you’re an engineer working on them or an entrepreneur marketing them someone else is doing all the hard work for you.
- High-tech communication systems are easy because for the most part the technology doesn’t need to be novel or revolutionary, just better thought-out and less centrally controlled.
- High-tech communications are relatively low-risk because (so far) they aren’t illegal either to create or use.
But high-tech communications are hard because people without a deep commitment will always be reluctant to adopt them. Sometimes privacy tech is initially very expensive. Using it will still get you “on a list.” Privacy tech is still risky if what you’re communicating is risky. It’s still risky if the provider is lying to you about their security or if they’ve been breached by the Deep State.
And even if the physical security some technology is perfect, it’s still risky if you’re communicating with idiots.
- Low-tech private communications systems are easy because most of them are hundreds or even thousands of years old — tried and true, from substitution codes to messages hidden in plain sight to simply whispering in another person’s ear.
- Low-tech privacy communications are easy because you probably learned a lot of really fun varieties as a child playing games or reading books. Invisible ink. Tin-can telephones. Secret handshakes. Secret signals.
- Low-tech communications are easy because the tools are basic and you’ll never get a blue screen or death or a shadow-ban from Twitter.
But they’re also hard because they take a lot of will and determination to use — much more than a text or a tweet or a phone call. They’re generally limited in range and are good only for communicating with a small group of people. They’re still risky if what you’re communicating is risky.
And they’re also still risky if you’re communicating with idiots.
Alas, the idiot factor is the biggest problem in any private communications system — and the sad truth is we’re all idiots on occasion.
I, for example, have a voluminous 20-year encrypted correspondence with a friend who has the proverbial “brain the size of a planet.” My brain’s not exactly shrimpy, either, and I’m fanatical about privacy. But I can think of at least five occasions during those thousands of exchanges when one of us (usually me) has simply “gone unconscious” for a moment and committed a security breach.
Fortunately, since my mantra has always been “encrypt everything, even your chocolate chip cookie recipes” nothing vital was exposed. In addition to DIY encryption my friend and I use extra measures like VPNs, proxies, or secure tunnels, and those have saved us from ourselves. But we’ve also just been lucky. Also: nothing but cookie recipes.
So before I get to the specific technologies (or non-technologies) of potential future private comms systems (part III-b, to come sometime within the next week), let me lay out a few general rules for truly private communications. If you heed nothing else, please heed these:
Claire’s Three Rules for (Relatively) Safe Communications
- DO NOT assume that because your communications method is private you can say or write anything you want. Certain things should NEVER be committed to writing or never be spoken over an electronic connection, even when you’re using encryption or “unbreakable” codes.*
- High-tech or low-tech, THE KEY to private communications is YOU and the people you’re communicating with. YOU are your best security and your own best assurance of privacy.
- If you know a person who is chronically sloppy with privacy — who still uses cc instead of bcc on emails, who shoves a dozen unconsenting strangers into group texts, who repeats information given to them in confidence, who refuses to consider even simple privacy tech like Signal — don’t try to convert them. They will not learn even if they pretend to try. So be polite to them, but simply never, ever trust such people with anything. If you trust them, you WILL get screwed.
There. You are now forewarned.
And you probably won’t pay attention because you’re human.
But that’s okay. Because I’m talking here as if we’re all going to be sharing dire secrets, when really most of us would probably just rather have a smartphone that isn’t constantly monitored by the NSA or participate in a social network that’s not serving the purposes of an evil oligarchy. Or to post a video without having it — and perhaps our entire account — “disappear” the next day. We don’t want to tell secrets or plot plots; we just want to be left the hell alone to talk with our fellow persons, as is our absolute birthright.
So you don’t need five layers of security surrounding messages written in an ancient code based on the Voynich Manuscript and personally lettered in braille by blind desert monks.
At least not yet you don’t.
At this point we don’t know how bad our homegrown totalitarians are going to get before they’re done. We already know that every cellphone transmission is recorded, and every cellphone location tracked at all times (love those non-removable batteries!). We know that merely using PGP or GPG encryption gets your emails flagged by the Deep State. That statements that were considered perfectly innocuous a few decades ago are now considered hallmarks of “domestic terrorism.” That “they” are using AI to identify pre-criminals — and that being opposed to the current regime or thinking the government has become too powerful are both signs and predictors of what they consider to be our future evil.
So sure, grab a good privacy phone when that becomes available (we’re actually getting close). Or go back to sending written notes instead of emails if that turns your crank. Quit Twitter and join Gab. Quit YouTube and use Rumble. Quit open texting and use Signal. Quit Google and use DuckDuckGo. Quit Facebook and … well, quit Facebook (what a waste of space in the universe it and all its ilk are).
It may be enough — for now.
But prepare for a future not necessarily of carrier pigeons, but of communications privacy that will require a lot more care and commitment than you’re likely ready for now. That is, be ready for a future where not only has the list of verboten words and subjects increased beyond measure, but where the consequences of any transgression, no matter how trivial, are swift and deadly.
* When you read the rule above about certain things you should never commit to paper or electrons, you might have assumed I referred to, say, plots to overthrow the government. Or desires to hang certain deserving politicians from lampposts. Well, perhaps those, too. But you know me; I believe in routing around governments and I do not advocate violence.
Here’s the simple truth about “forbidden” words.
The political manipulator, Cardinal Richelieu (whose chief goal was to ensure absolute power for the French monarchy, crushing the historic nobility and taxing the commoners into poverty in the process), said,”If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.”
We who’ve lived in freedom fail to understand how serious Richelieu was. He actually got quite a few people hanged. And he didn’t mention a statute of limitations — because tyrants and their most eager minions observe neither statutes nor limitations.
We may ultimately have to say, and plan, certain things if we are to seize our freedom back from the insane totalitarians who’ve stolen it. But meanwhile, saying much more ordinary things, we must never underestimate the foul ways in which oligarchs and their minions will twist our words and use our very innocence, hopefulness, and naivete against us.