Now Is The Time For All Good Nerds To Come To The Aid Of The Internet


The Internet is broken. It is burning. Facebook and Twitter fiddle while it smokes and we, the sapped members of the Internet class, watch the flames and wonder what’s next. Say what you want about the politics of whistleblowing or the tendency of the exhausted sysadmins to finally give up, now is the time to fix this before all we hold dear – the freedom that NSA snooping was ostensibly designed to protect – is gone.

Ignore this moment at your peril. To be clear, what the NSA is doing is far from technologically advanced. It is simple signals intelligence. It is grep writ large. However, the degree to which it has ensconced itself into the fabric of the Internet is breathtaking and the nonchalance and ignorance of the government officials involved is stunning. Now is the time for the nerds – and I mean this with all seriousness – to rally.

How can we start? Encrypt everything. Enough dilly dallying. My public key is right here and yours should be in the same spot. Sign your emails. Encrypt missives between yourself and the significant other, even messages as mundane as the shopping list. I’m well aware that this level of paranoia borders on insanity, but rest assured that while you may not need this protection now, there will be a point when your private correspondence is interesting to someone, somewhere. To not encrypt is the security equivalent of leaving your ground floor window open while on vacation. Maybe no one will notice.

Encrypt your hard drive. Require security connections for sites that ask for private information. Kill your Facebook account. Support seemingly goofy ideas like secure Twitter. If you’re worried at all, make your concerns count.

Require transparency and control of your service providers. All mail clients and browsers should support encrypted communications. All of them. That I have to pay $2 to be protected on iOS is ludicrous. The same goes for Android, although the open source on that side of the mobile fence is fairly strong – but still not strong enough.

Support open source. I’m about to put my money where my mouth is and begin using Ubuntu as a primary laptop OS. It will take time, but it can be done. As insufferable as some open source zealots can sometimes seem, Cory Doctorow is right to buy only Lenovo Thinkpads running Ubuntu. If I were a startup hacker concerned with privacy, I’d do the same.

Don’t consent to be identified or use hardware that does. Sure, this is hard, but it’s necessary. We go along blithely signing up for service after service – I’m the worst offender, to be clear – and there are computers with radios on my body that count my steps, heart rate, and current position. I’m an idiot, but you don’t have to be. My job is to putz around with services and hardware. Your job is to remain secure and human in the face of massive inhumanity.

The absence of privacy is tragic and dangerous. As Groklaw founder Pamela James notes, Janna Malamud Smith’s book Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life details the absolute value of privacy even in situations fraught with absolute terror.

One way of beginning to understand privacy is by looking at what happens to people in extreme situations where it is absent. Recalling his time in Auschwitz, Primo Levi observed that “solitude in a Camp is more precious and rare than bread.” Solitude is one state of privacy, and even amidst the overwhelming death, starvation, and horror of the camps, Levi knew he missed it…. Levi spent much of his life finding words for his camp experience. How, he wonders aloud in Survival in Auschwitz, do you describe “the demolition of a man,” an offense for which “our language lacks words.”…

You are all smart people. You are building social networks, ways to buy and sell, and supporting innovation. If you are not taking privacy into consideration, you are failing. Your product will fail and you will be forced to start over. Because the Internet routes around damage, and this, that endless shuffle of important data through thin pipes overseen by faceless contractors who repeat the endless mantra “If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear,” is damage.

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