January 20, 2023•1,043 words
The 2014 Snowden leaks. The 2016 presidential election. Way too many articles about big tech companies harvesting its customers' data without their consent. The movie Enemy of the State. The movie Minority Report. The TV show Black Mirror. It's no wonder that for the past seven years I have had a tin-foil hat firmly affixed to my head and dove headfirst into the online privacy and security realm to learn as much as I could about protecting my data, preventing tech companies from gleaning my online habits, and to be as anonymous as possible on the internet. My adversaries were big tech companies and anonymous hackers around the world looking to take over my accounts and my accumulated resources.
It became a hobby, a passion, and in some cases, an expensive obsession. I spent lots of money on premium subscriptions to ProtonMail, SimpleLogin, Abine Blur, AnonAddy, Bitwarden, and more. I bought books from IntelTechniques. I spent hours listening and re-listening to OSINT podcasts. My RSS software overflowed with articles about data breaches from numerous security website feeds. I ditched my decade-long preference for iPhones and purchased Google Pixel phones (gasp!) specifically to delete the stock Android Operating System and install a privacy-focused Operating System in its place to avoid giving telemetry to the big G. I created more anonymous emails than I can recall from memorization. I utilized more secondary/alias phone numbers that I could keep track of. All of my passwords were updated to be at least 40 characters in length, none of which were duplicated on other sites. I spent two years updating email addresses in my online accounts to unique randomized emails which forward to one personal email address. I even purchased a hollow nickel to hide a microSDHC card inside containing archived backup information in case of emergency.
I armed myself with enough information and strategies that I taught classes at a local community college about online privacy and security. The interested students who signed up for my course were not prepared for the figurative headache I gave them about all the ways their online accounts are at risk. They were happy with their nine-character password for all their online accounts. I shared my accumulated wisdom with HWNIs, High Net Worth Individuals, and learned that they would rather have someone do the work for them instead of them doing the work themselves. "I have people for that." was the consensus response. I shared interesting information and compelling mindsets with my wife during dinner and on our daily dog walks. Even though she saw the benefits of a password manager, she was not interested in following my lead in securing her online life, and lamented my decision to disengage from our family devices within the Apple silo, which makes communication and sharing information much easier. Turns out group chats and airdropping files matter to your loved ones.
I spent two years curating an online newsletter sharing practical tips for people who didn't wear a tin-foil hat like me. I had a small cadre of subscribers around the world, but I was not able to be the leader of a tribe, based on Seth Godin's powerful book, of aspiring digital ghosts. And I definitely did not acquire 1,000 true fans as Kevin Kelly wrote about in 2008. I've observed that people do not share the same concerns as I do when it comes to protecting our online life. "It's too much work" is a common dismissal when I recommend something as essential as changing your personal email password every six months. We all are froggies in the pot full of water, and I've noticed the water has gotten really hot, but everyone else doesn't notice. They are consistently focused on the slab of glass in their hand.
Back in my 20s decade I spent about three years of my life pursuing a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. My intentions for this time and financial commitment was to confirm within myself that I was capable of protecting myself when a dangerous situation arose. However, during my red/black belt period, the belt before reaching 1st Dan black belt, my Sabumnim told us that he hoped we would never use the skills we have acquired ever in our life; we were only to use what we learned in critical emergency situations. That was unexpected to hear. I learned so much, and I wanted to share it with the world. Or at least proactively protect myself.
Finding myself adrift in an ocean of password managers, multi-factor authenticators, alias account platforms, and open source operating systems has created an constant friction in my life. Especially when these services, not developed by big tech companies, have disruptions in service, or even shutter their doors due to lack of funds from the open source community. One company, which provides me with an alias phone number that I use on hundreds of online accounts instead of my personal phone number, stops forwarding text messages to my personal phone, and I immediately lose access to essential accounts. Accounts that my wife expects me to access quickly when we need to make a purchase or financial decision. I created this complexity, and the unpredictability of denied access is becoming too much to have grace and patience.
This complexity of so many and so much flies in the face of my aspirations of being a minimalist. For the past couple of months, I have been dreaming of a simpler technology landscape for both my personal life. I don't know what that life looks like right now, but I'm realizing that being anonymous online takes a great deal of work, and after pursuing many methods and procedures, it is very overwhelming to keep all the plates spinning. So I'm taking one cautious step at a time to reduce the information clutter and the technological friction for my personal life. I'm wagering that I can find a way to ease back into society and big tech companies with my digital landscape and my online habits...and just be quiet for a while.
Just like my Tae Kwon Do experience, should there ever be an emergency situation occur with my or my family's online life, I always can reactivate those acquired skills to respond accordingly.