I’m quite determined not to write a part III-c(5)(xyz) of this series, so I plan to give as good a brass-tacks overview of alt-communications potential as I can in this one post.
I’m sorry to disappoint you who expect detail, but that would literally require a book. Hopefully I can provide a framework and a few good links on where future privacy tech might go. But this is an area where you of the Commentariat can fill in where I have to skim.
H/Ts in advance to S, CX, the blog Commentariat, and the members of the Living Freedom Forums.
The privacy-focused alt-comms we need in our future will have hundreds or thousands of variations. But they are likely to fall into three broad categories:
- Global and high tech, adapting current or evolutionary tech to supplement (or replace) the present, very broken internet and cellphone systems;
- Global or local and medium tech, using some variation on radio;
- Mostly local and non-tech, using historic methods, both open and covert.
Obviously, these three forms of communication are hugely different and at first I struggled with how to shoehorn them into one blog post.
But if they are to work properly FOR freedom and AGAINST totalitarian surveillance and control, all comms systems will hold to the same four principles:
- Communications systems should be decentralized.
- They should be flexible enough to route around damage.
- Users should always own and control their own equipment and (if any) software.
- Your data should belong to you absolutely, both in principle and in fact.
Such systems can be more private and will be more controllable by users. But it’s also important to note we are not talking about super-duper top-secret uncrackable systems. There is simply no such thing — or at least no such thing that is within our practical reach. We are simply talking about systems that are not in the control of billionaire oligarchs or totalitarian governments. How secure they truly are depends on many factors.
Please keep that in mind as background as we move on to the briefest look at the types of communications systems or devices that might help us get there.
The future of alt-tech alt-comms
In the early days of the Internet we had a saying: “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”
Not anymore, it doesn’t!
Did John Gilmore make a mistake when he said that back in 1994? That hardly seems likely, as Arpanet, the forerunner and original backbone of the Internet was designed to survive — and route around — nuclear war. Yet today we have trouble routing around Google, Joe Biden, and the NSA.
So what happened between then and now?
Well, the short version is that although Arpanet could route around A-bombs, Arpanet didn’t have the Worldwide Web. Or graphical browsers. Or billions of clueless users who just wanted easy ways to talk to Grandma or watch porn. It was just scientists, students, and later enthusiasts, sending text rather laboriously around the world.
In short: bandwidth was a rare and expensive commodity.
Today, bandwidth is cheap. But in the interim, the companies we now know as Big Tech used their advantages of finances and scale (and often, their births at major universities or within telecoms) to corner bandwidth and build such an easy and compelling infrastructure of communications on their e-property that billions got hooked and now can’t kick the central-control habit.
It should never, ever have been this way.
And that observation takes us to Urbit — a not-ready-for-prime-time effort to return the Internet to what it should have developed into.
It’s best to let Urbit describe itself. It’s a very non-technical description. The idea is basically a cloud server in every home. Total decentralization. Privacy and private ownership of a private internet.
Am I endorsing Urbit? No. Very important note: I am not endorsing ANY tech company/foundation or any specific technology linked here. I’m saying, “These are the promising directions. These are developments that meet the four criteria above.”
I do believe that, of all the tech I’m mentioning in this post, Urbit and similar projects are the ones that truly strike at the root of our problems with tyranny-tech.
Many of my computer geek friends already operate private clouds. What’s needed is to expand and make such tech more accessible to us non-nerds. And even if this type of alt-internet never sweeps the globe, it could be very useful among privacy networkers.
In the nearer future category — and in the category of cellphones (which heaven knows need a privacy replacement as much as anything does), perhaps the most interesting is the Librem 5.
Ready for prime time? Again, no. And with the current chip shortage and supply line issues, development has been stalled. But again, take a look at the direction: user-removable battery (a must!); hardware kill switches; open-source operating system; no servitude to the whims of either Apple or Google. Plus all the other things you love like an actual headphone jack. Will the Librem 5 be the future of cellphones? Dunno. It’s just on the right path to route around the oligarchy and restore users’ ownership and freedom.
OTOH, MIT says almost anyone can build their own cellular networks that will route calls around the world. All open source. Available now.
Can’t get into building whole new systems or waiting until privacy cellphones are a thing? Whonix promises easy anonymity of your individual communications. It claims to work by forcing all your connections to use TOR and other security measures.
Now we get to one of my pet peeves: “Easy” means you have to trust others. When it comes to your personal security, I don’t think that’s a good idea. That said, however, I realize how formidable most people find DIY encryption and other self-managed or self-researched forms of e-privacy.
In that case, why aren’t more of us using Signal, with its fairly believable promise of end-to-end encryption? Signal is NOW-tech — free to download, easy to use. It enables us to send texts, conduct group chats, and make phone calls, all with as much privacy as we can possibly expect in the here-and-now.
The latest version of the Thunderbird email client offers end-to-end encryption and while I loudly curse its implementation of it (because it wiped out the previous and vastly superior Enigmail encryption add-on), it is — again — easy privacy tech.
And I’m heartened to see more of my correspondents switching from Google’s spy-tech gmail to Switzerland’s much better Protonmail
Which unfortunately tells us one more thing about the future of secure tech: much of it will not be produced in the U.S.
The role of radio in all this
An impressive number of men (just about always men) in the prepper community are radio buffs. I have very little experience, even as a user, with this aspect of communications. So guys, please fill in the gaps and correct my errors.
Radio comms are notoriously not very private. They operate on government-controlled frequencies. And many of them require government licensing. So this fits into an alt-comms system how?
Well, there is some privacy in radio, and that aspect is growing. But the major benefit is that the radio world has been opened up in the last 20 years or so, enabling more varieties of local communications — which are very much needed at the community/neighborhood level. It’s not just ham radio any more (though that is alive, more accessible than it used to be, and sometimes a lifesaver), but a variety of short-range, hand-held options.
When TSHTF, either locally or globally, temporarily or long term, we may bless radio when the ‘Net and cellphone networks fail us. Already radio tech like like FRS (Family Radio Service) is useful to us when we need to keep in touch with, say, fellow wilderness hikers or fellow volunteers at an event. Or family members or members of our network.
Radio is a useful backup to other types of communications and should probably be part of our comms “arsenal” in the spirit of “two is one and one is none.”
Here’s a very good overview of prepper communications tech that covers pros, cons, and capabilities of four radio options.
DMR was designed with three tiers. … The primary goal of the standard is to specify a digital system with low complexity, low cost and interoperability across brands, so radio communications purchasers are not locked into a proprietary solution.
Of course in practice, the non-proprietary aspect hasn’t necessarily worked out. But the bottom line is that DMR is a flexible system of handheld radios (one tier is unlicensed) that’s capable of transmitting both voice and data, including encrypted data, and that’s getting increasing use on amateur radio bands, where users are setting up repeaters and creating hotspots based on cheap little Raspberry Pi computers.
On the previous post multiple Commentariat members have already made informative comments on radio tech (and other comms topics), including DMR. I hope they and others will add more to this discussion.
Now, on to old-fashioned cloak-and-dagger.
The future of low-tech alt-comms
Oh, this is so much easier — except for the human problems common to all alt-comm systems (getting them adopted and not having them ruined by idiots). But the varieties! And the well-practiced techniques! And the histories! So after all that tech talk, let’s just have some fun with the possibilities here.
First, though, a caution: If you are trying to preserve either privacy or secrecy by using low-tech communication methods, DO NOT — do not EVER — take your old-fashioned methods online or transmit your confidential, hand-coded messages by cellphone.
The NSA has said they absolutely love people who try to fool them with homegrown codes and ciphers because the homemade product is usually so easy to break. So if you start something offline, keep it offline. In most cases, also keep it local. Recognize as always that nothing is infallible. Using non-tech comms can be fun and you can communicate relatively safely with chosen others in the real world to update them on developments, notify them of meetings, warn them of danger, and many other useful things. You can even create fake “secret messages” to mess with the heads of Authoritah.
Sometimes all you need to communicate is, “Others are with you; you are not alone.” Even that can be a very powerful purpose for traditional messaging.
Now, that said, how about considering:
Hobo sign — adapt it with modern freedomista meanings.
Printed samizdat. (But don’t use your own printer for sensitive communications; the Deep State can identify that.)
Hiding messages in plain sight. (The tech version is steganography, but the IRL version can be as simple as a coded message on a store sign or a painted rock placed in an agreed-upon place.)
Committees of correspondence. (Which could also use codes, cyphers, invisible ink, printed samizdat, etc.)
And how about one new-tech method using old non-tech delivery? You may love to hate NFC tech (aka spychips), but those cheap little chips can have their uses for anything from monkeywrenching to serving as vehicles for coded dead-drop communications.
Aaaaand, to bring us back to where we began in part III-a, carrier pigeons!
I’m confident your ingenuity can come up with more.
I originally wrote a nice, long coda about why we need varieties of communications types, about how free people can outthink and outmaneuver government and crony surveillance and censorship in the long run, and various other things. I even managed to work in “Kumbayah” and “We Shall Overcome.”
But frankly, you’ve already heard enough from me today. You know you have. So I’ll wrap this up now and hope you’ve found something of use in its great length.
After this message posts, I may be offline for while. I’ll be sure pending comments are approved and valid messages pulled out of the spam locker. But if you don’t hear from me for a couple of weeks, it’s probably not because I’ve been hauled off by the Deep State. Or at least I hope not.