Open Notes

Digital Preppers 🖥📓

You know about preppers? I think of men comparing notes about hunting knives to buy in the camping aisle at REI while mansplaining the salesperson about what kind of dried foods last longer in a bunker.

Yes, there is a white male nutcase element to the prepper lifestyle. How to trap, skin, and eat a rattlesnake and that sort of thing. How to live off the grid. Some paranoid ranting about government surveillance. Shaving by looking at your face in a stream or a piece of broken glass. Fascination with weaponry. Self reliance. On the edge.

But lately, that edge has come inside to put its feet up around the fireplace instead of being hunkered down around the campfire. COVID-19 has made us all more cautious (or at least I hope it has.) The supermarket aisles are bare every other week, and there are weapons in the streets, often wielded by police. Curfews drive us inside to doomscroll on our devices. Being a prepper doesn’t sound so crazy any more. It sounds ... logical. Being prepared would be, right now, the height of rationality.

We live in earthquake country here in Southern California. In our relationship with the outside world, we already live a prepper life. We have the dried food, the extra water, the iodine pills, the first aid kits, the go bag, the defiant yet fatalist attitude. So maybe I was kind of a prepper all along. I'm going deeper. Looking at my devices, I am becoming a digital prepper.

Day by day, I obsess more often about clean, uncontaminated email messages than about clean, uncontaminated water. I consider hacking scenarios more than I plan for having enough firewood or furniture to burn. My iMessage texts have end-to-end encryption - good. But not when I text someone who is on an Android phone - bad.

Watching the police riot in the streets has brought out an anti-authorarian streak in me, one that I haven’t experienced since I was a geeky teen. I’m not doing anything illegal, but I wonder what would happen if my actions were judged illegal by the authorities? A corrupt government would search my texts, phone calls, and emails to build a case against me. If I went to a protest, I would wear goggles and a mask, leave the contract lenses at home, and would debate whether or not to bring my phone.

That's the key dilemma for a digital prepper in the streets. Bring the phone and be ready to document what’s happening? Bring the phone and it will be used to track your location by law enforcement? The Markup published How Do I Prepare My Phone for a Protest? Other experts, like EFF, has recommended you keep your phone in airplane mode so your camera is ready but you are not broadcasting your presence.

Posting pictures and videos of police and protestors has added to the outrage. Documentation matters. It can help with police reform. The ACLU has at least one lawsuit going against local police and Black Lives Matter has filed another that I know about. But posting photos of protestors’ faces can subject them to surveillance and tracking by law enforcement. Police departments are using facial recognition technology to pick protestors out from a crowd and identify them for tracking and in some cases, arrest. Signal, the encrypted voice and messaging system, just issued an update that permits users to blur the faces in photos, protecting protestors from being identified.

If you use gmail, Google is reading all your email. It's nice, because it predicts responses for you and anticipates when you may went to turn an email into a task or calendar event. It's not nice when your emails are used to target advertising on you, or when you become a target of any kind of investigation. What if Google releases all your stuff? What if your account is hacked? Proton Mail and Tutanota offer end-to-end encryption for your email and both have free versions. The issue there is getting enough people to use it, kind of a like a digital herd immunity.

I’m on Signal.