Mobilized

Just Send Me a Signal: Encrypted Communication, Whether or Not You’re a Spy

Mobilized - Thu, 2015-04-16 16:15

How worried should I be about my privacy?  While this question is not yet keeping me up at night, it’s been on my mind more in the past year than ever before. Privacy online, over email, and in a social media context is one thing, but what about the privacy of my personal communications say over the phone or via text message? Considering how startled I am when I actually get a phone call shows how little I use the phone to talk to anyone anymore. I’m more concerned about privacy over text messaging. This led me to explore what I can do to protect the privacy of my messaging on mobile devices, specifically my iPhone. I heard about an open source app called Signal offered by Open Whisper Systems and decided to check it out.

Why is it important?

There are a lot of ways to think about privacy in 2015. Ever since Edward Snowden, former contractor to the U.S. National Security Agency, leaked documents which revealed global surveillance programs run by the NSA, it’s been hard not to wonder about potential impact on our daily lives. If nothing else, Snowden triggered a tide of growing public awareness regarding the extent to which mass surveillance (and secrecy about surveillance) is de facto. How do we balance national security against information privacy?

I’m not a spy. I’m not engaged in illegal or illicit activity. Nor am I generally a paranoid person. My use of messaging is pretty average, nothing anyone would be surprised by, so why should I care if the government is listening?

This is precisely the mindset Glenn Greenwald seeks to challenge, this idea that even people who are uncomfortable with mass surveillance believe there’s no harm in it for them because they’re not doing anything wrong, not doing anything they need to hide. Only people engaged in bad acts have a reason to hide. Right? Privacy is no longer even a “social norm,” according to Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook.

The trouble is, “when somebody knows that they might be watched, the behavior they engage in is vastly more conformist and compliant… people, when they’re in a state of being watched, make decisions not that are the byproduct of their own agency but that are about the expectations that others have of them or the mandates of societal orthodoxy.”

transcript link

If we assume we’re being watched, whether or not we care, a good case can be made that this is the ultimate in societal control. “Mass surveillance creates a prison in the mind.” That’s no way to live as individuals, or as citizens. What freedoms—even just of the mind—are being eroded gradually, perniciously, in our day-to-day use of technology, and what are the costs (now and in the future)? I find these questions seriously interesting to consider.

As Greenwald says, we all need “to go somewhere where we can think and reason and interact and speak without the judgmental eyes of others being cast upon us.”

If you decide you’re willing to render yourself harmless, “sufficiently unthreatening to those who wield political power, then and only then can you be free of the dangers of surveillance. ”

Okay, so let’s see what Signal is about.

Why choose Signal?

Signal started out as an encrypted calling app for iPhones and iPads. The new version, Signal 2.0, adds encrypted text messages using a protocol called TextSecure. Users can communicate via voice or text securely because Signal employs end-to-end encryption. The goal is for Signal to be “a unified private voice and text communication platform for iPhone, Android, and the browser.”

One persuasive argument for its use is that the code is open source. The Intercept makes the additional argument of consistency, particularly for iPhone users:

Signal is also one special place on the iPhone where users can be confident all their communications are always fully scrambled. Other apps with encryption tend to enter insecure modes at unpredictable times — unpredictable for many users, at least. Apple’s iMessage, for example, employs strong encryption, but only when communicating between two Apple devices and only when there is a proper data connection. Otherwise, iMessage falls back on insecure SMS messaging. iMessage also lacks forward secrecy and inspect-able source code.

After testing it for a couple of weeks with several contacts, I can say it works fairly well. It’s slightly glitchy, more basic (with fewer features) and not as elegant as iMessage. Not bad, but not awesome, which I’ll get back to at the end. First, a few observations.

Once you download Signal and allow it access to your contacts you can start messaging with someone who has Signal, but here’s the rub: they have to find you, you can’t locate them.

Notifications do not reveal who sent you a message and so you have to open the app to find out.

You have to turn sound on in your iPhone’s Settings in order for Signal to work. If you turn sound off, you’ll get an error message.

There is often a very slight delay in sending a message, and a longer delay when sending an attachment. Frequently the delay is so long the error message “Attachment is downloading” displays.

[oh, and the attachment which took so long to download? Not a dick pic.]

Ahem. Otherwise, the process for taking pics, accessing the camera roll and attaching is quite similar to iMessage.

If you want to message with more than one person at a time, you have to name the group. I created one called “ladiez” for a group including myself and my friends Michele and Kimberly.

The in-app calling feature doesn’t work, and I can’t figure out why. Each time, I get a screen that displays “Connecting…” but the phone just continues to ring.

You can download the Signal app and start using it from anywhere, say for example a sailboat in the middle of the Caribbean.

To Signal or not to Signal?

I think my answer is Not, for now, though it was a fun experiment and I’ll keep the app on my iPhone. Maybe I’ll use it occasionally for more uh…sensitive content. There was definitely something sneaky feeling about it, which I kind of enjoyed, as did those I enlisted to help test it out. I can say it does make me feel more secure—and yeah, potentially more daring—to know Signal and a growing number of other tools for encryption are out there. To know people are doing something about the various ways in which our privacy is at risk.

Links for further exploration
  1. Encryption Works: How to Protect Your Privacy in the Age of NSA Surveillance
  2. The Great Sim Heist: How Spies Stole The Keys To The Encryption Castle
  3. As crypto wars begin, FBI silently removes sensible advice to encrypt your devices
  4. As encryption spreads, U.S. grapples with clash between privacy, security
  5. Stop Taking Dick Pics, But Not Because of the NSA (SFW)
Categories: Mobilized

TimelineJS: A Superb Open Source Tool

Mobilized - Mon, 2015-03-02 16:13
What is it?

TimelineJS is a web-based tool that allows you to easily create visually-rich, interactive timelines generated by your data. It’s an open source tool from Knight Lab at Northwestern University and is free to use — all you need is your content and a Google Drive spreadsheet.

How it works

Just download the spreadsheet template from the TimelineJS website, input your text, images, and links, then upload it to your Google Drive account. Next, publish your spreadsheet in Google Drive according to TimelineJS directions, then return to the TimelineJS website to paste your Google sheet link and view the result. You can share the link or embed your timeline on your own website.

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My timeline Same Sex Marriages in the United States and When They Took Effect uses the TimelineJS default settings for visual effects and themes, and I think those produce a clean, professional appearance. However, you can alter visual effects and themes to your satisfaction. You can also edit and update your data within the Google spreadsheet at any time, and the changes will automatically appear in your timeline. For instance, I’ve had to update marriage equality information for a number of new states!

Where it excels
  • TimelineJS scores big for ease of use. This spreadsheet method makes Timeline JS much simpler and faster to work with than other timeline tools that default to creating the timeline slide by slide and element by element.
  • It also really shines in its ability to display your timeline responsively. Check out a timeline on your phone. It adapts and looks good on both large and small screens, though I would recommend doing timeline creation on a large screen due to the complexities of inputting information.
Tips
  • There are no options for creating an account, so it’s important to keep track of links to timelines that you construct.
  • Each slide must have something entered in the Start Date column in order to display. Don’t alter the headings or delete columns from the spreadsheet template or the TimelineJS generator won’t work.
  • If your website runs on WordPress, you may need to use this plugin and your Google spreadsheet URL instead of the standard <iframe> embed code.
Who is it for?

TimelineJS is a flexible tool that can enhance many topics and areas of study. Most users will simply gather materials for the story they want to tell and enter them into the spreadsheet template. Those who have JSON skills can go further and create custom installations.

Timelines are an excellent way to visually convey transition and change within sciences or social movements, and there are lots of possibilities for teaching and learning. These can extend beyond simply the instructor presenting content to requiring class participation in gathering and describing the data. Since creation and editing of this timeline tool is done in a shareable Google spreadsheet, direct collaboration is possible. Students could also select and construct topics and histories individually or in group projects.

More examples

Be sure to look through some other examples for inspiration and ideas for your own timelines.

Categories: Mobilized
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