As story after story breaks about the United States government seemingly spying on its own citizens without warrants or even suspicions it’s easy to feel a bit insecure. Those pictures you posted on your Facebook of your cousin’s wedding were meant to be between you and your 200 Facebook friends, and each of their 200 Facebook friends, and also your followers on Tumblr, but that’s IT. Johnny Law has no business snooping around your album titled “Slam drunk: Spring Break 2012”, there’s a reason you blocked your parents from seeing it.
I’m with you. But in this political climate, I can’t imagine the government giving up their new spy toys. They are just too much fun and so, so easy to do. Also, they probably cost more than the entire NASA space program so giving them up would be wasteful. Looks like we, as private citizens capable of feeling a prick of shame when it comes to our online activities, have to take matters into our own hands.
A lot of websites are providing people with a great deal of suggestions on how to “go off the grid”, but you can’t make it more than a few paragraphs in before your head starts spinning with technical jargon like “Virtual Private Network”, “IP address”, or “Is the little green light next to the power button on?”. As far as I’m concerned, if grandma can’t figure it out, it’s not worth doing. So instead, I humbly suggest a few practical, common sense, suggestions to keep the Feds off your trail. Prepare to disappear.
1. Padlock your home computer
A ton of internet experts (referred to as “hackers” or “cyber-ninjas”) parade out a myriad of ways you can prevent people from “hacking” or “cyber-ninjaing” your computer through various security programs and firewalls. Well, to them I say, if a padlock was good enough for grandma’s “special bedroom box” then it’s good enough for computers. I’m not sure where the best location to place the lock on the computer tower is (every tower is different), but I’d suggest somewhere near the front. It serves to not only prevent a break in but also acts as a strong deterrent from even TRYING to break in.
2. Camouflage your cell phone
The NSA has said before that when it comes to cell phones, if they can’t see it, they can’t spy on it. Keeping it in your pocket or fannypack is fine for most times, but when you have to use it, guess what? It’s out, it’s exposed, its compromised. Prevent this by painting the entire phone in military grade camouflage (Nordic climes, don’t forget to modify yours for “winter colors”). I’ve seen a few people do this and forget to paint the screen, to which I sneer: What? You don’t mind if the NSA see’s your screen? Usually, that searing rhetorical question is enough to make them see that they have been acting like fools.
3. Use code words
When you have to talk on the phone, and you think the information may be compromising, use “code words” generously. For example, here is a recent phone conversation I had:
Me: Hey man, do you know what’s up? Got any tickets?
Him: Yeah, I’ve got several pounds of the best tickets you’ve ever smoked.
Me: Hm. How much would an 8th of a ticket cost?
Him: 100 bones.
Me: That sounds like a good price for an 8th of a ticket, but what if I want to buy a bit of snow too?
Him: That costs a bit more.
Me: Okay, I’ll just take the 8th of a ticket do you think that will be enough to roll a fatty.
Him: More than enough.
You see? To a G-man, it seems like I’m just buying a ticket to the movies and asking about the weather, but to an experienced windtalker, it was actually an exchange for drugs. I bet the government boys listening in were pulling their hair out trying to figure out what we were talking about and to that I say, good, let them squirm a little!
4. No Selfies
If you’ve ever seen CSI you know that facial recognition software has advanced at quite a clip since the early days. Putting a selfie on facebook is basically an invitation for spies to run it through their criminal database and find that you have unpaid parking tickets and are wanted for murder in Wisconsin. Also they make you look stupid.
5. Limit googling yourself to once per hour
I know it’s tough, but this is a post 9/11 world and we all have to make sacrifices. If you must google yourself (like me), you should limit this to the bare minimum of once per hour or 24 times per day. This aligns with the average amount the average American googles his or herself per day so it avoids suspicion. There are two exceptions: If you are a celebrity or 16 years old, it would look MORE suspicious if you DIDN’T google yourself at every waking minute of your life. Plan accordingly.
6. Write a handwritten letter to Mark Zuckerberg asking him to stop selling your information
Politely but firmly ask Mark Zuckerberg, inventor of Facebook, to stop stealing your private information and selling it to Match.com and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He is legally obligated to reply (may take up to 6 to 8 weeks) and remove you from his list of people he’s using like livestock to further line his pockets. He probably gets several hundreds of these per day so a hint to help you stand out is to write yours in blood.
7. Talk quietly, never above a whisper
This should be obvious, but the louder you talk on your phone the better the spooks on the other end can hear you. If you whisper they can barely hear you. They might not even be able to make out your exact words depending on your accent or the severity of your lisp. Text messages are even better because they will only hear silence on the other end. As far as I know there is absolutely no way they could hear your text messages so they are the most private way of communicating ever and what you write in one will absolutely never come back to haunt you.
8. Speak to a dead person through a medium, who then tells the dead person to tell a medium at another location what your message is to an awaiting friend or loved one.
This one is pretty self explanatory. It’s not rocket science.
When a 15 year old boy scribbled his name into a 3,500 year old Egyptian monument, he probably wasn’t thinking it would lead to an international incident, or an intense internet manhunt. He probably wasn’t thinking about anything at all other than the “heh heh” laugh that 15 year olds do and Beavis and Butthead parody so well. Unfortunately, international incident and intense internet manhunt are what he got.
When the Chinese blogosphere got a hold of pictures depicting a priceless ancient Egyptian artifact defaced by one of their own, they did not handle it well. They launched an intense investigation to ascertain the identity of the idiot who did this. Who they found was Ding Jinhao, a 15 year old Chinese boy who, several years previously, had visited Egypt with his parents.
China has recently surpassed the U.S. and Germany as being the largest spending tourist nation in the world. Each year the Chinese spend around $100 billion on international tourism and that number is expected to continue to rise as a burgeoning Chinese middle class is poised to continue to seek out the comforts and leisure that, until recently, were not financially possible.
This comes with the added visibility that their individual citizens have as tourists and representatives of China. A stigma like the “self centered American tourist” image that the U.S. has so painstakingly cultivated is something that the Chinese are desperate to avoid. Defacing a national treasure is not something that the Chinese wanted and the condemnation was swift.
While I too am saddened by any ancient work being destroyed or damaged due to stupidity, callousness, or oftentimes, for reasons as stupid as jingoism, I don’t think we should be condemning this boy to a life’s worth of punishment. What he did was stupid, but it also reminded me of just how stupid all of us were at his age.
Even the words he chose to write (“Ding Jinhao was here” in Mandarin) scream “I’m a bored teenager here against my will” rather than malice. It’s such an innocent statement, “I was here” that if it had been written on a toilet stall wall and not on a national treasure, it would have been almost quaint. It’s a statement that comes from someone who thinks he is the center of the Universe, and at 15 we all did.
Now, before I get too far, obviously it must be pointed out that not every 15 year old is dumb enough to do this, nor would want to. And I know that at 15 you are aware of right and wrong and have the beginnings of a thing that later in life will make you long for being a 15 year old again: Self Control. But my only point is that, given how many bored 15 year olds are passing by the ancient monuments every day, this was bound to happen.
It must also be noted that because of the relative lack of funds that Egypt has for protecting its ancient landmarks (especially since the Arab Spring ushered in a new government and new level of disorder), there is an almost criminal lack of supervision at many of these sites. This can be seen as good and idiotic. Anyone who has ever waited in line at the Louvre to see the “Mona Lisa” only to get to the front and find that the picture is small, reaallllyy small, and behind a piece of bullet proof glass that’s thick, reaalllyy thick knows the feeling of wishing safety measures didn’t exist. On the other hand, the curators of the Mona Lisa know people like Ding Jinhao are out there. In every school bus that pulls into the Louvre’s parking lot, there are probably several kids dumb enough or cocky enough to ruin it for everyone.
Now, having identified the boy in question, the Chinese hackers appear unwilling to exercise restraint, as the sacred act of “shaming” always seems to fall on to their eager, self-appointed shoulders. Like wolves licking their lips, they pounced. Hundreds of blog posts with his picture and name were shot out onto the web. His school’s website was hacked and in its place was a “message making fun of him.” One blogger wrote:
“It’s a disgrace to our entire race!” said another angry micro-blogger.
Yep. It has went that far. Perspective, never the internet’s strong suit, is entirely lost and hyperbole has replaced it. Far from being a disgrace to an entire race, this is more of a disgrace on the Egyptian government’s part who show little to no effort to keep these priceless artifacts protected. It is also one of those things that will occasionally happen. We need to admit that. This is going to happen.
Teenagers are at a weird point in their lives. They know right from wrong, but they often times don’t care. I think back on my high school years and, if viewed objectively, see instances of behavior from classmates that was borderline sociopathic. None of those kids, as far as I know, grew up to be violent killers or unfeeling monsters. It was a phase. They were occupying a period of life where childhood was behind them, adulthood ahead, and in the middle was a whole lot of stupid acts of bravado and arrogance.
By all means, condemn this act. Call it stupid, or callous, or shameful, but this young boy does not deserve to be a punching bag for the rest of his life because he happened to do something stupid in the Internet Age that manufactures and feeds on outrage, at the expense of human decency. This is no different than a witchhunt or gladiatorial bloodsport; A form of entertainment built around watching a fellow human being squirm, loosely justified (black magic! different god! stupidity!), with audience participation. Well, it needs to stop and it can do that by each of us refusing to fall into the trap of manufactured, self perpetuating outrage. We also need to stop this idea that we are all responsible for “teaching” transgressors a lesson. With hacking, great power comes great anonymity and what results is sometimes vigilantism that is worse than the original offense. With any witch hunt, the justifications are used to give unending power to those employing them, whether that be a church or an internet forum. They deserve this. No, they don’t and it’s not helpful. But do we have the self control to admit that or, on the internet, are we all 15 years old?
When I wrote an article about the potential for abuse from kickstarter projects, this is what I meant:
The website http://www.gawker.com released a bombshell article last night that revealed that one of their reporters had met with a guy who had a video of the mayor of Toronto smoking crack and hanging out with known drug dealers (one of which, the man pictured on the left in the picture above) was later killed in a gang related shootout. Yeah, I would say this is kind of a big story. The mayor is also a conservative, and who doesn’t love a conservative being outed as a hypocrite? Well, besides conservatives I mean. What is different about this story is that Gawker has turned to YOU (me?), yes YOU! to fund the purchase of this video for a hefty price of $200,000 dollars because, well they don’t want to pay for it, that’s why.
I didn’t think my prediction of a dystopian future where crowdsourcing would be used to squeeze even more pennies out of the public would take the form of a video of the Toronto Mayor smoking crack, that was a curveball, but it was essentially this form of “crowdsourcing” that I felt was troubling, and only going to get worse.
As Ben Cohen, a writer from The Daily Banter, wisely points out:
The crowdfunding site Indigogo has the power to help many a worthwhile project, and it’s highly debatable whether this is one of them. Gawker, which is worth in excess of $300 million, is basically asking the public to pay for something it will profit from. They’re obviously calculating that the virality of the video won’t make them $200,000 in ad revenue, so they’re asking their readers to foot the bill. I’m all up for reader funded journalism, but it has to beactual journalism not just slapping a video up of something controversial. If Gawker wanted $200,000 to do a series of in depth pieces on crack use in Toronto, then sure. But this is just a cheap move to get people to pay for stuff they should be buying themselves.
Again, I think that things like Indiegogo and Kickstarter are wonderful tools, and have managed to help jumpstart (even KICKstart) the careers of some wonderfully talented people who otherwise would still be working a 9-5 job somewhere in the Midwest. The premise is sound, but like other great premises, we can’t ignore that flaws that open it up to exploitation by the powerful (ahem, capitalism anyone?).
Zach Braff is rich, powerful and knows people. He has EVERYTHING going for him. His kickstarter was successful entirely because he is already rich, powerful and knows people (or in this case, people know him). That isn’t to say his movie isn’t worthy of being made, I’ll plop down 10 bucks for ticket when it comes out, but he is stealing the spotlight from many other, lesser known, equally valid projects on Kickstarter when he puts his stuff on there. And that kind of defeats the whole purpose of Kickstarter.
The Gawker “crack video” is the same kind of problem. The website doesn’t want to foot its own bill, and it is banking (literally) on the fact that it no longer has to. Ah, the beauty of crowdsourcing. Even better, as Gawker is learning as we speak, even if the video never gets fully funded and the world is deprived of seeing another conservative “family values” politician behaving despicably, the website is getting a TON of free publicity from this whole thing. Based on it’s front page cover and its virility online I’m willing to bet the article just discussing the crack video is Gawker’s most viewed page this week. Not bad for not paying a single penny.
It’s unfortunate that we are seeing this shift of power back to the few, and that’s really what this is all about, let’s not kid ourselves. Crowdsourcing as an idea is brilliant in its effectiveness and also admirable in its execution. The internet is at its best when its fostering a sense of communal goals and effort, a truly Marxian paradise where every one chips in and we all reap the shared benefits. But what companies are learning is that people are willing to do this for next to nothing and their work can be just as good as the people on payroll can manage and, because they have lost their souls somewhere around the time they were promoted to middle management, they see potential dollar signs and little risk. It’s not asking too much to expect a website like Gawker to pay for a video that they want, they can afford, and they will benefit from. It’s not too much to expect Zach Braff to fund his own project by the traditional channels. And if you are intent on crowdsourcing, it’s not too much to demand that there should be a proportional benefit to the crowd itself.
If you haven’t been sitting online all day or, you know, care about important things, I will forgive you for not knowing about the supernova scale meltdown of husband and wife team at Amy’s Baking Company. What started as, perhaps, the most ridiculous episode of Kitchen Nightmares with Gordan Ramsay of all time (including Gordan walking off of his own show) has cascaded into an online public relations disaster for the horrible owners. The Huffington Post gives us the backstory:
One has to wonder what possessed Amy and Samy Bouzaglo, the owners of Amy’s Baking Company in Scottsdale, Ariz., to behave the way they did on last Friday’s episode of “Kitchen Nightmares.” It’s saying something that host Gordon Ramsay comes off as the reasonable, even-keeled one.
The British chef walked off the program for the first time in the show’s history, after the couple’s antics and finger pointing proved unsurmountable challenges. Some of the more memorable moments: the couple pocketed the waitstaff’s tips, admitted to firing more than 100 people, picked a fight with a customer who’d been waiting an hour for his pizza and served up pre-made frozen raviolis.
While it is impressive that owners Amy and Samy were so awful that they failed at a show called “Kitchen Nightmares”, what happened next is just pure insanity. After the episode aired, their Facebook page was, as tends to happen when you willingly invite publicity into your place of business and then spend an hour making everyone hate your guts, inundated with negative comments about the owners and how they ran their business. Being completely reasonable people, they apologized for their awful behavior, explained it was stress and personal problems, and vowed to make big improvements to earn the respect of their customers again. Nah, just kidding. They flipped out completely.
This was followed by increasingly angry and increasingly caps locked messages that had the only real effect of making the Internet’s self appointed warrior bees swarm.
And just like that, Amy’s Baking Company set themselves up to feel the full wrath of millions of people who thrive on this kind of thing. The troll campaign began in earnest.
Eventually, maybe a concerned friend or relative, called Amy’s and said something along the lines of “Hey, I know you’re upset but, and I’m just spitballing here, maybe you should get rid of the messages that call all of your potential customers and the world as a whole godless morons. Again, not my place but like, maybe even just delete every message and call it a night?”. Sensing their entire business in jeopardy, the intrepid owners deleted all messages, took a break and hatched a scheme to damage control what was clearly very severe damage:
So they said they were hacked. And it worked about as well as when Anthony Wiener tried that excuse. That is to say, it backfired miserably and made them look even worse. I think Amy and Samy might be proving those AA meetings wrong, there really is no such thing as rock bottom. The hole can just keep getting deeper.
While most people either enjoy the terrible owners getting their (pre-made, store bought, microwaved) just desserts or find themselves relishing the sheer idiocy of these people with unabashed abandon, I can’t help but feel a little bad for them. Sure they are entirely responsible for their terrible behavior, but they are also victims of a world that they do not understand. The internet is a wonderful place, and I’m sure they were excited to establish their official restaurant facebook page, but they clearly did not understand how this medium fully works. It was like Cortes’ first meeting with the Aztecs. The disconnect between the two parties was a wide margin.
Samy, the chief writer of the facebook posts, did not know that the world online works very differently than the real world (although, ironically, it works nearly identically to MTV’s “The Real World”). He seemed to be under the assumption that if somebody has a problem with him, they need to settle it in the traditional fashion: Someone insults you, you insult them back, they insult your mother, you tell them to step outside, you throw a few haymakers, friends break you up, you go home and tell your friends how they should have seen the other guy. But on the internet, it’s an ethereal target. There is no location at which to direct your fury. You become a babbling maniac, made even more frustrated by the fact that no one seems to be getting hurt by your attacks. Even worse, the internet doesn’t care about what you say, just as long as you say it. They are like your older brother: They are just looking for a reaction. If it’s in caps lock then even better.
It was like shooting fish in a barrel. Samy and Amy had absolutely no idea how the internet works. At various times they threatened to sue Yelp and Reddit. Get the FBI involved. Challenged the entire internet to come to their restaurant to fight. Didn’t know who Patton Oswalt was. I mean, these guys were clearly out of their league here.
The only consolation that these people have is that they will inevitably get a few interviews with Matt Lauer and Jimmy Kimmel or at the very least Opie and Anthony, and most likely (because we have passed the Rubicon of even appearing to care about anything) they will be approached by TLC to make a show that will last a couple of seasons. So Reddit is claiming victory here (yay, we made stupid people look stupid!), but to the losers go the spoils.