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.
I heard Congress sent out subpoenas for over 200,000 protonmail accounts. I suspect that’s from the January 6th commission… still fishing for “domestic terrorists” rather than looking at the FIB (Federal Bureau of Insurrection). My family and I already took to texting about nothing but daily happenings (what the cat dragged in) many years ago rather than anything serious. Although, we have been guilty of sharing hilarious memes. We don’t talk about anything serious on the phone. We used to have family meetings where we discussed things in person, but now we’re scattered about the country so that’s more difficult. Although, from those preparedness meetings, everyone got to work on their own plans.
Lately, I’ve been jokingly saying “Come on EMP!” to bring down the grid, but I don’t really mean that. I like my electricity and air conditioning here in the South.
As a former privacy and security professional, I know how far the government has gone to intercept so called private and encrypted communications. Those tunnels? Welp, they’ve got as many endpoints out there as there are tunnels (not quite); endpoints that decrypt and forward to the vast databases they’ve created in vast data centers out in the desert. We are already compromised. If TPTB want to target you, they can and will. It’s just that simple.
Carrier pigeons! is what I’ve been saying for years. LOL. The way I feel about it, is families should already have a when-the-excrement-hits-the-oscillating-device protocol/plan in place. And they/we should have agreed upon certain actions in the event of certain situations. Mostly I advocate for self-sufficiency and preparedness so if all else fails, we hunker down, and pray.
I’ve also heard the rumor — although it involves the FBI issuing the subpoena, not Congress.
If true, it would be a fishing expedition worthy of Captain Ahab. But Protonmail says they’ve received no such subpoena.
Local comm networks will be essential.
VHF/UHF radio can be useful, but not private, although it is really difficult to ID and track if brevity is maintained.
Regional networks on HF (like AMRRON) can provide some news, but take a bit of knowledge and preparation. Amateur radio has always served well in emergencies…
Indeed, JB MD. I’ll have a link to “prepper comms” including several forms of radio in the next episode.
And I agree: local, local, local. Comms right down to family level will be needed. And I believe a healthy “alt-comms” system will include layer upon layer and backups to the backups.
but but I’m not doing anything illegal so what do I have to worry about?
As Claire implied one thing about illegal is that it is time sensitive.
I don’t have a smart phone not mainly because of a security issue but because it can become a bad habit for the weak. A lot of us are just not as strong as we need to be or even think we are (kinda goes for smart too).
There’s an idiot factor for sure but we are not all idiots however because we are all human so the bigger issue is the human issue, again as Claire implied.
IMHO the most hidden communication is the one that is hidden in plain sight. Somewhere that might most likely not even be the priority of the tyrants and their spy’s that are everywhere!
Great info as always, Claire. Thank you for sharing it. I look forward to the next installment.
3 things immediately come to mind regarding radio.
DMR – Digital Mobile Radio has encryption. Not legal to use it on the ham bands, but on other licensed frequencies, yes (but I don’t which radio services allow this). I don’t know whether there’s any unlicensed frequencies where one could practice this, and probably if there are, you’d need to operate at 1/2 watt or lower, but it’s something people might want to learn how to use. The disadvantage of DMR is the documentation is awful. I assume if one is buying a commercial package from e.g. Motorola, this isn’t the case, but for something like an Anytone AT-D878 it’s pretty bad. Post-SHTF “what FCC?” applies.
Digital mesh networks operating on 2.5 or 5 Ghz can make a dandy system. Unlicensed operation at 1/2W or lower allows encrypted communication. If you get enough nodes, you can cover a large area. It’s a wide-area network using radio, so web servers, VOIP, IM and other stuff that runs on the the internet all works, but you can make a network where only authorized nodes can connect.
Winlink – this is an e-mail system available to hams. However, the tech involved could be made to work in a private network. Again, post-SHTF hey, rules?
I still think that getting an amateur radio license and learning to operate has great value. As Larry says, you’re already on a list, so unless you’re really deep underground, identifying yourself to the FCC as a ham isn’t much, IMHO.
ETA: DMR is used on the ham bands, just not the encryption. It also can be routed over the internet, so conceivably, one could use it over your wide-are mesh network to expand your coverage area.
RC — Thank you for this info. I hope you’ll repost it on the follow-up blog. That one will deal more with specific communications technologies, but because there’s so much to cover and because I’m no expert in radio I’m only including a few links. I do believe that various existing radio technologies will be much needed for alt-comms and this kind of added detail is very welcome.
I’m in an unusual position – I was a ham radio operator ( when I was a teenager ), then I worked in the Navy as NEC-1449 – “Automatic-Secure-Voice-Communications” or AUTOSEVOCOM. One of my best sea stories is about a 4-star admiral trying to bypass security protocols on his personal system.
Lots of things the military did with secure communications is relevant to this subject, clearly.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m setting-up some local FM broadcast, GMRS repeater, and 2-meter repeater for my small valley. I actually think the FM will be the most useful. Other than music and news, I can imagine the old “Mr Black has a mustache.” and “The chair is against the wall.” type of stuff.
The repeaters will make any emergency alarms – fire and floods and stuff – hearable by everybody, too. You can set-up the receivers to be quiet until a tone sequence is heard, for example – like an emergency alert system. Think like the EMTs have radios except that you won’t hear everything if you don’t want.
I look forward to hearing Claire’s input on this so I can fine-tune my own ideas.
“I look forward to hearing Claire’s input on this so I can fine-tune my own ideas.”
I’m afraid I’ll disappoint you there, Jolly. The next column (already written) has so much to cover that there is very, very little detail. Just links and criteria for what makes a good alt-system.
In fact I’m hoping people like you and others who’ve posted here today will fill some of MY gaps.
“I can imagine the old “Mr Black has a mustache.” and “The chair is against the wall.” type of stuff.”
I think there is a lot to be said for “in plain sight, in the clear, but with hidden meaning” communications. But it would probably be better to not use quite such off-the-wall and obvious phrases as those used by the BBC / Radio Londres during WWII. Back then, there was little risk of the Germans arresting or shooting the broadcasters, since the Germans had little access to Britain. But in the scenarios we need to plan for, TPTB arresting or shooting anyone suspected of subversive or clandestine communications is a real possibility.
I wish I could find more of this stuff. There is some weird, classical appeal in these old code phrases, at least for me, anyway.
“We know that merely using PGP or GPG encryption gets your emails flagged by the Deep State.”
I use steganography, which embeds private information inside normal-looking image or sound files. When properly done, no one (such as government snoops) can say whether information is embedded or isn’t, but the recipient with the correct program and password can recover it.
With steg it’s not necessary to employ VPNs, proxies, or secure tunnels to communicate securely yet openly. You and your friend simply share photos of your kids at the beach or your latest garage band recordings, and only the two of you know there’s more inside.
“We know that merely using PGP or GPG encryption gets your emails flagged by the Deep State.”
This wouldn’t be true, or even useful to TPTB or anyone else, if encryption (and, by extension, privacy) was the default, everywhere, all the time, for everyone. That needs to be the goal, while we still have the option to try to pursue such goals.
@JDL – as a rule steganography is inefficient. I imagine that modern software could possibly make it better, but how much information can be hidden in a jpeg? It would be an interesting problem to a software engineer. Ultimately, it could be a variation of a public / private key…though that limits to specific people, and if you send virtually the same pictures / songs with slight variations, that would be suspicious….
hmmmm… Is there software that does this?
@Jolly – It’s true that steg is “inefficient” if by that you mean the information embedded must be much smaller than the file that wraps it. Luckily a .bmp or .wav file is huge enough to be able to accept quite a bit of embedded data without looking fishy. As it happens, I am a software engineer, and I’ve written the steg program that I use. It’s presently a “console app” (command line driven, not a window), so wouldn’t appeal to a wide audience as-is.
Right, you should never send the same picture or sound file twice with slight differences, as that broadcasts that you’re embedding.
The unfortunate reality is that the government can designate any words or any communication device as potential risky and rebellion prone (one thinks of the registration of Romanian typewriters). I assume at this point that all conversations are monitored, even if just by AI’s looking for patterns or specific “words”.
Ultimately it does come down to whom one is communicating with. There are only two types (as there are with most things): Those that consider such matters as real and those that do not.
(Sadly, I can assure you the concept of “Carrier Rabbits” is less likely to be successful than pigeons…
Yup. Every word you type or send on an email should be considered to be tied back to you. Even on *any* mail system. Secure communication is possible, but only face to face.
As I have said before, there’s only one list. Everybody’s on it.
I’m hearing now that the teacher’s union and the school boards association are asking the FBI and DOJ to investigate as “terrorists” parents who protest what schools are doing to their kids, both with CRT and masking. They’ve forgotten the oldest rule of the family.
If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
Jdl – interesting. I’m primarily front-end these days, but my c++ is pretty current..As for “they” being able to read all our stuff – absolutely. There’s an old analogy that email is like old-fashioned post-cards – EVERYBODY can read what you write as they pass it along from one server to the other.
I would imagine that previously agreed-upon pictures or words, or whatever would be the signal to your buddies that x has happened.
One thing to note, however. When all the NSA and PATRIOT Act crap was implemented, we all worried that OUR privacy and such was gone. HOWEVER – WE, currently, are NOT the target. The TARGETS of all this spying are primarily those elected and unelected bureaucrats at all levels of government.
Compromised communications would certainly explain the toothless Republicans, RINOs, etc.. The vote counters and such could be fellow travelers combined with compromised / bribed people from the “other side of the aisle.” It would explain John Roberts.
Explains a LOT.
Sure, we’ll be targets at some point, but so far, only non-NSA and non-CIA government assets have to worry.
The medical tyranny is accelerating. Can’t donate organs or get a transplant if you are of the unvaxxed. https://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/local-news/colorado-springs-womans-name-inactive-on-uchealth-kidney-transplant-list-over-vaccination-status
I checked the comments to see if this has already been addressed. Protonmail is an artifact of the CERN Particle Physics Laboratory in Switzerland. As such, the US government has no subpoena power over it. “As ProtonMail is outside of US and EU jurisdiction, only a court order from the Cantonal Court of Geneva or the Swiss Federal Supreme Court can compel us to release the extremely limited user information we have.”
Protonmail has what we call “encryption at rest” (data on storage media are encrypted) and encryption on the wire. No logs of mail user transactions are kept.
I would not trust my life to Protonmail, but I don’t understand how USGOV could hoover up data from it the way they do with Google and Facebook.
Send lots of trash, embed anything important in jokes, movie references, abstract ideas etc that were agreed upon previously. Overwhelm the signal with noise. Decentralization is key…. AI might be smart, but innuendo etc can go a long way and create alot of work for them. Most of the value is metadata anyway…not what you are sending but to who, so don’t do it. Be a full public normie. Example below…..post it to a public place like a very popular movie review blog that others can read freely where selected people know to read comments that mention keyword Jorge. Keywords can be 100% random, ie 1st word mentioned at 12:05pm on CNN or a local radio station. The arabs are masters of hiding in plain site. It works. So lets do the same and use tech against the moonbats and monkey wrench the whole mess.
Change up regularly because anything can be broken given enough effort and repetition.
My favorite part of the movie was when ….. sure wish I could do that. Absolutely hated the scenes with Jorge Clooney…lol. He’s such a …. Have you seen ….yet? I saw a review on CNN last night …..
AI cannot deal with sarcasm. I personally cannot stand sarcasm, but I could practice. LOL