I like to tinker. I cut my mechanical teeth on an ancient ’67 VW hatchback, a decrepit ’73 lime-green Datsun and a Chevy Camaro that had seen better days. When I started playing guitar, I extended my fiddling habits to electronics. To this day, I repair my own instruments and amplifiers and build my own computers.
That’s probably why a few years ago, I found solace in a fascinating book by philosopher and motorcycle repair-shop owner Matthew Crawford. He argues that modern technology strips us of a vital aspect of our humanity — our ability to interact with and understand the things we use. From car engines to cellphones, technology is designed to be sleek, mysterious and inaccessible, making us dependent — and exploitable.
Hiding the Works
“Hide the works” is an industrial design term describing contemporary vehicle engines. When I looked under the hood of my ‘76 Camaro, I saw mechanical parts I could identify, understand and manipulate. Today’s engine compartments typically present an impenetrable block, rendering everything underneath inaccessible except to the “experts.”
Modern information technology is the ultimate in “hide the works.” Our computers and cellphones perform essential tasks using invisible systems that are beyond our control. Email, web browsing, file transfers, text messaging and phone calls all depend on infrastructure controlled by other people and institutions, especially big tech companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft. As owners of Jeeps and VW diesels recently found out, even our cars can be manipulated from afar without our knowledge.
U.S. law reinforces companies’ tendency to prevent us from learning about technology on which we depend. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, for example, makes it illegal for many software and electronic-device purchasers to look inside their own possessions. This leaves us vulnerable to malware, snoop-ware and other “bugs” deliberately inserted by manufacturers and governments to keep tabs on us.
Tussle of the Titans
Occasionally, however, we learn what goes on behind this Oz-like technological curtain. For example, recent reports tell us that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is trying to force Microsoft to hand over the private emails of some of its European clients. Microsoft says that because these emails are stored on servers in Ireland, they are not subject to U.S. law. The DOJ says they are. For the individuals involved, all that stands between privacy and public exposure is the U.S. court system.
Similarly, Apple has reportedly told the DOJ that it cannot hand over private iPhone iMessages even if it wants to, since they are end-to-end encrypted. Savvy tech users, however, know there is a workaround that Apple could use if it chose to do so. Again, all it would take to eliminate user privacy is for Apple to decide to cooperate with the Feds.
This reinforces the fact that all of us are vulnerable to actions taken by the people who control the “tools” we use in our modern lives. We can’t see or control these tools — message systems, for example — but others can.
It’s Not Paranoia if They’re Really Out to Get You
Ultimately, modern digital information systems such as cell networks and the Internet perform one simple function: They transmit data. Everything from voice calls to films can be broken down into ones and zeroes and sent through the digital pipes. If the controllers of those pipes choose to look at that data, there’s nothing to stop them.
Do you trust them? I don’t. That’s why I tinker with my data. Before it gets into those digital pipelines, I turn my data into a form that appears as gibberish to anyone except me and the people whom I want to see it. As NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has said, “encryption” does beat the snoops. If you follow the right online privacy tips, you can control what goes on behind the technological curtain.
Snowden, for example, gives a few online privacy tips. Use:
- SpiderOak for file sharing
- Signal for messaging on iPhones
- RedPhone or TextSecure for messaging on Android phones
I use these myself. And for extra protection, I often use a secure virtual private network (VPN) setup as well. It costs me very little to achieve all of this, and (sadly, for a tinkerer like me) it’s so easy to install, it’s no challenge at all.
Have I got anything to hide? No. I just want to be free to say and share what I want, without having to worry about what’s going on “behind the curtain” of the technology I use.
There’s no need for you to worry, either — all you have to do is act.
Offshore and Asset Protection Editor