Life, liberty, and the pursuit of privacy

Published 2016-06-29 on Drew DeVault's blog

Privacy is my hobby, and should be a hobby of every technically competent American. Within the eyes of the law I have a right to secure the privacy of my information. At least that’s the current law - many officials are trying to subvert that right. I figure that we’d better exercise that right while we have it, so that we know how to keep exercising it once it’s illegal and all the information about it dries up.

One particularly annoying coworker often brings up, “what do you have to hide?” Though it would defeat the purpose to explain what I’m hiding, let’s assume that what I’m hiding is benign, at least legally speaking. I’m sure you can understand why I don’t want ~/Porn to be public information should my equipment be seized after I publish this blog post and an incompetent (or angry) investigator leaks it. Building secure facilities for housing secrets is fun! That’s true even if there aren’t a lot of interesting secrets to hide there.

But the porn folder brings up an interesting point. I’m not ashamed to admit I have one, but I would be uncomfortable with everyone being able to see it. Or maybe I’m having an affair (a scandalous proposition for a single guy, I know) and there are relevant texts are on my cell phone. Perhaps I suck at managing my finances and the spreadsheets in my documents would tell you so. Maybe I have embarrassing home videos of bedroom activities on my hard drive1. Maybe there’s evidence that I’m a recovering alcoholic in my files. Maybe I’m a closeted homosexual and my files prove it, and 10 years from now the homophobes win and suddenly the country is more hostile to that. Maybe all of this is true at once!

Keeping these things secret is an important right, and one I intend to exercise. I don’t want to be accused of some crime and have my equipment seized and then mishandled by incompetent officials and made public. I don’t want a jury chosen to decide if I really stole that pack of gum when I was 8 and then have unfavorable secrets leaked. Human nature might lead them to look on my case unfavorably if they found out about all the tentacle porn or erotic Harry Potter fanfics I’ve been secretly writing. Maybe an investigator finds something they don’t understand, like a private key, and it ends up being exposed through the proceedings. Maybe this private key proves that I’m Satoshi Nakamoto2 and my life is threatened when the case is closed because of it.

To the government: stay the fuck out of my right to encrypt, or, as I like to think of it, my right to use math. They will try, again and again, to take it from us. They must never win.

The second act of this blog post is advice on how to go about securing your privacy. The crucial bit of advice is that you must strive to understand the systems you use for privacy and security. Look for their weak spots and be aware of them. Don’t deceive yourself about how secure your systems are.

I try to identify pain points in my security model. Some of them will be hard to swallow. The first one was Facebook - delete your account3 4. I did this years ago. The second one was harder still - Google. I use an Android phone running CyanogenMod without Google Play Services. I also don’t use GMail or any Google services (I search with DuckDuckGo and add !sp to use StartPage if necessary). Another one was not using Windows or OS X. This is easy for me but a lot of people will bitch and moan about it. A valid privacy & security model does not include Windows. OS X is an improvement but you’d be better off on Linux. Even your non-technical family can surely figure out how to use Xubuntu to surf the web.

I also use browser extensions to subvert tracking and ads. Ad networks have severely fucked themselves by this point - I absolutely never trust any ads on the web, and never will, period. Use software like uBlock to get rid of trackers (and speed up the web, bonus!). I also block lots of trackers in my /etc/hosts file - check this out. Also check out AdAway for Android.

These changes help to remove your need to trust that corporate interests will be good stewards of your private information. This is very important - no amount of encryption will help you if you give Google a GPS map of your every move5 and your search history6 and information about basically every page on the internet you visit7. And all of your emails and contacts and appointments on your calendar. Google can be subpoenaed or subverted8 and many other companies won’t even try9 to keep your data secret even when they aren’t legally compelled to. I like this image from Maciej Cegłowski’s excellent talk10 on website obesity about the state of most websites:

When you give all of this information to Google, Facebook, and others, you’re basically waiving your fifth amendment11 rights.

Once you do have control of your information, there are steps you should take to keep it secure. The answer is encryption. I use dm-crypt which allows me to encrypt my entire hard drive on Linux. I’m prompted for a password on boot and then everything proceeds (and I’ve never noticed any performance issues, for the record).

I also do most of my mobile computing on a laptop running libreboot12 with 100% open source software. The weak point here is that if your hardware is compromised and you don’t know it, they could steal your password. One possible solution is keeping your boot partition and perhaps another key on a flash drive, but this doesn’t fully solve the problem. I suggest looking into things like case intrusion detection and working on being aware of it when your hardware is messed with.

I mentioned earlier that my phone is running CyanogenMod without any of the Google apps. The weak point here is the radio, which is very insecure and likely riddled with vulnerabilities. I intend to build my own phone soon with a Raspberry Pi, where I can have more control over this - things like being able to disconnect power to the radio or disconnect the microphone when not in use will help.

I also self host my email, which was a huge pain in the ass to set up, but is lovely now that I have it. At some point I intend to write a better mail server to make this easier. I use opportunistic PGP encryption for my emails, but I send depressingly few encrypted emails like this due to poor adoption (follow me on keybase? I’ll give you an invitation if you send me an encrypted email asking for one!)

If you have any questions about how to implement any of this, help identifying the weaknesses in your setup, or anything else, please feel free to reach out to me via email ( or Twitter or whatever. Good luck sticking it to the man!

  1. ICloud leaks of celebrity photos 

  2. The secretive inventor of Bitcoin. I’m not Satoshi, if you were wondering. 

  3. Click this to do so 

  4. “But I liiiiike Facebook and it let’s me keep up with my frieeeends…” There’s no privacy model that includes Facebook and works. Give up. Read this and try to ignore the childish language and see the tangible evidence instead. 

  5. If you have location services enabled on your phone, here’s a map of everywhere you’ve been. Enjoy! 

  6. Here’s all of your searches. You can delete the history here, supposedly. I bet it doesn’t unfeed that history to your personal advertising neural network at Google. 

  7. Google Adsense and Google Analytics are present on basically every website. I’m positive they’re writing it down somewhere when you hit a page with those on it. Facebook certainly is, too. 

  8. Remember PRISM

  9. Like AT&T, for example 

  10. The Website Obesity Crisis 

  11. That’s the right to remain silent. Come on, you should know this. 

  12. libreboot is an open source BIOS. I got my laptop from minifree, which directly supports the libreboot project with their profits.