Photo by flickr user shooteng

NSA-Proof Your Email! Consider your Man Card Re-Issued. Never be Afraid Again.

In these fearful times of mass surveillance and chaos in the streets, it is important that we protect ourselves. But how?

Tim Maly
Tim Maly
Aug 19, 2013 · 11 min read

He said he was in “investments”. He seemed nice enough; part of the financial apparatus that plunged the global economy off a cliff in 2008, but a friendly fellow. He said he was worried about the future.

We were sitting at the marina, deep in cottage country, in a shaded waiting area filled with picnic tables, protected by umbrellas but sweltering nonetheless. My hosts had wandered off in search of something called a ‘zero gravity’ chair, which sounds like a contraption for the space age but turns out to be a better way of reclining. Good reclining is crucial in cottage country.

He was waiting for his boat to be cleaned, I couldn’t get a data connection worth a damn, and that was enough to get us talking. Grey hair, matching green polo shirt and shorts. Retired. Summers in cottage country, winters in Florida. For now, he said.

For now?

“If the Democrats take the lower house, I’m getting out.”


“I know a lot of Canadians love Obama, but I’m not one of them. It’s too much like 1932.”

The conversation went quiet. This was a delicate situation, etiquette-wise. I didn’t know his politics, and the fashion of the day is to follow statements comparing Obama to Hitler with questions about his parentage, intimations of crypto-Muslim conspiracies, rants about the IRS, and laments for the fall of Liberty and Truth. I braced myself for a storm of bad noise met with forced smiles. We mustn’t upset our neighbours. Least of all here, where the air is so still and the soft lapping of water plays counterpoint to the distant roar of the freeway.

“It’s becoming a security state,” he said.

Relief washed over me. Here, we could agree. Whatever the particulars of the analogy with 1932, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that there was any daylight between the security apparatus set up in the fearful wake of 9/11 and the sprawling network of spies, drones, secret courts, and black site detention centres in operation today. I did not have the heart to ask him how he thought a Republican Congress would make things any better and so our conversation proceeded amicably. Domestic harmony was maintained; harmony is important in cottage country.

Our session of vigorous agreement was interrupted by an interloper, a pale fellow in cargo shorts and a black t-shirt with a fedora to shade his eyes from the sun.

“I don’t mean to snoop,” he said as he heaved himself off the nearby bench and ambled over, “But I heard what you were speaking about, and I think I can help.”

One of the great creeping horrors of the expanding revelations about the NSA’s intrusions into online communications is how all-encompassing they are. With every major service-provider implicated, people with anything to hide have nowhere to go.

Whether you personally have something to hide, it’s hard to imagine anyone feeling completely comfortable with the NSA’s unblinking eye running over their correspondence and phone records. As a patriotic red-blooded American, you might think one of two things. Either Edward Snowden is a hero who’s blown the lid off a villainous security state, or Snowden is a snivelling crook. And why would you entrust your personal correspondence to an organization known to employ traitors and petty criminals like Edward Snowden?

God help you if you are a foreigner. Bad enough to accept excesses conducted in the name of one’s own national security. It is quite something else to accept them in the name of the security of some other place.

“The important thing is to protect yourself,” continued our fedora’d friend. He was digging around in his satchel as he said this. As we watched, he dipped his head further and further into the bag. When he came up for air, he had a crumpled pile of paper in his hands.

“Here,” he said. “I made a bunch of copies at the public library. I’d signed on with a false ID, so they should be clean.”

I examined the page. No use mentioning these microdots, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.

NSA-proof your e-mail in 2 hours,” read big letters across the top. It was a printout from a website run by one Drew Crawford.

It began with a history lesson explaining that email was always meant to be a distributed network, free from the centralized vulnerability to government intrusion that you find in Yahoo Mail or Hotmail or what-have-you. It went on to promise that once you have it set up, it’s maintenance-free with better features than Gmail.

Crawford had strong language for us fools using major email providers.

If you are still using GMail (or Yahoo, or arbitrary US-based email company) in August, your right to complain about the NSA spying on you is revoked. If you’re complaining about government spying on the Internet, or in a gathering of programmers, and you won’t take basic steps to do anything about it, then you’re a hypocrite, full-stop.

Two hours? Sign me up. I wish to maintain my right to complain about the NSA. Full coverage and don’t spare the horses. I read further to make an inventory of what I’d need. Step zero, it turned out, was to already know my way around Linux. “Experience running Apache or Lighttpd or Nginx, etc.”

I understood one of those words.

A decade ago, I did a stint working at a private school. It was large enough to have its own IT department when that kind of thing was still unusual. The IT team were thoroughly unpleasant people. They’d been relegated to a basement of computer labs where they felt overworked and under-appreciated. They took their grievances out on the rest of us.

My role was ‘public facing’, meaning that I needed to be able to exchange email with people from across the country, many of them kids with personal addresses. After a time, I noticed email I was expecting wasn’t coming through. I alerted the IT desk.

“Were they sent from Hotmail?”

They were. A child in northern Manitoba was meant to be asking my advice and I was meant to be sending her handouts to help her organize a debating club.

“We get too much spam from Hotmail, so we just delete everything.”

What could I say? I was some dumb junior staffer and these angry geeks were gods of their world, and so of mine. I retreated to my desk and made do. So cowed was I, that it didn’t occur to me to bring it up with my manager.

“Protect yourself.”

This may well be the defining motto of our times. No one is to be trusted; it’s a dangerous world out there and if you can’t be bothered to take basic steps

Well, everyone gets what’s coming sooner or later.

The watchword is self-reliance. They’re coming to take what’s yours, so you’d better be ready. Federate your email, buy a generator, make sure you’ve got good locks, and for God’s sake, carry a handgun. There are monsters in the streets and some idiot is arming them.

But how to defend against the errors of the masses unwilling to take care of themselves? Every message in my outbox is in some fool’s inbox; plain as day, as if I’d sent it straight to PRISM myself. NSA-proof? Not without a massive shift of collective action undertaken by a society of people who’ve spent the past decade or so dumping as many photos, feelings, and fantasies online as time and bandwidth would allow. Why not? I certainly did. It’s nice to have friends.

I considered asking our benefactor how he handled these troubling matters. Had he instituted a strict quarantine? Had he walked his friends, family, and business partners through the tricky steps required to symbolically shield themselves from the all-seeing eye? Had there been resisters? Had he tearfully said goodbye to any long held relationships with people who’d insisted on remaining on the wrong side of history? Who was his cell provider?

But the sun was beating down and my discomfort was growing. I smiled, thanked him, and moved away from the tables towards the air conditioned showroom in the marina’s main building.

The last I heard of my companions, the banker was flipping through the pages with a nervous look in his eyes, saying, “These instructions seem pretty technical…”

When faced with extreme heat in cottage country, a variety of solutions present themselves. A tall drink with plenty of ice never goes amiss. Failing that, set yourself up with good breeze and shade and take a dip in the lake from time to time. If it gets truly unbearable, you can retreat to some air-conditioned shelter, building one if necessary, or sell the damn place and head for colder climes entirely. Ride out this godawful heat somewhere civilized.

The tricky thing in these situations is knowing what scale is right. In the grip of a terrible heat wave, the mind gets hazy and it can be hard to decide between ordering another drink and browsing the real estate classifieds. Day to day, it is difficult to distinguish between an unusually hot one and the signs of a wrecked climate that say it’s time to move elsewhere.

These are, after all, ecological problems. And when you find yourself in a flood zone, or a wildfire warning area, or tornado country, self-reliance only goes so far. No amount of preparation will protect you if you find yourself staring at an onrushing column of smoke and all your neighbours built their houses with kindling. No amount of home renovation will fix the water if, somewhere upriver, some monster with an obligation to protect shareholder interests is filling the streams with mercury.

Even the Unabomber, holed up in his cabin in remotest Montana, couldn’t help but see passenger jets criss-crossing the sky.

No solace in these waters. Alone in the showroom, I counted six cameras slung from the ceiling as I leafed through brochures for watercraft and watercraft accessories. Were they hooked up to The Cloud? Who could say?

I once interviewed the security manager of a grocery store chain who told me that half their cameras were hooked up to nothing at all. Chasing down petty criminals with a jacket full of Pop Tarts was barely worth it, so they relied on deterrence. The trick was that no one knew which cameras were fake.

This technique will be familiar to anyone acquainted with Bentham’s, labour-saving prison design or Foucault’s theories which elevated the design to metaphor. The Panopticon is a circular prison with a central guard tower with a clear view of every cell and a clever set of shutters that makes it impossible for cell denizens to tell if the tower is manned. From a central position of power, unseen watchers potentially see all. The inmates, subjected to the whims of their guards and at peril of brutal reprisal for any wrongdoing, must assume that they are being watched at all times and so they behave accordingly. They become their own jailers, while the paid guards are off having a smoke-break or what-have-you.

Though Bentham’s exact design was never built, it was an early conceptual success in disruptive crowdsourcing for a notoriously labour-intensive industry. Foucault saw these same labour-saving power structures woven into the fabric of 1970s society.

It’s easy to spot the all-seeing panoptical in the systems of the past decade. The skies are filled with drones and satellites. The streets are filled with cameras. The networks are filled with wiretaps, malware, and signal splitters routed into secret rooms. They’re watching on behalf of everyone. Governments, corporations, corner stores, tourists, protestors, cops, voyeurs, traffic lights, and concerned citizens. We’re all wired up for picture and sound, and many of us are broadcasting, even here in cottage country.

“You’re thinking about panopticons, aren’t you?”

The voice startled me. I turned to see that it belonged to a woman in a dark suit, white shirt, and black tie, standing at the far end of the boat I was near. I hadn’t heard her come in. She was wearing a big floppy hat and black aviator sunglasses. As I stared at her, my darkened reflections stared back at me. They looked tired.

“Everyone’s thinking about panopticons,” she continued. “They’re the metaphor of the year, have you noticed?”

I allowed that I might have been thinking about panopticons.

“I saw you thinking it. You were looking at the black dome over there above the cash register. You were practically mouthing the word.”

She stepped towards me.

“Certainly, the pundits are talking about it. Foucault’s in now. He’s arrived. He’s the hot new way of understanding the world and the pundits loooooove to natter on about how there are security cameras everywhere.”

I glanced around; the room was empty.

“The thing about pundits,” she said, “is they’re always getting it wrong. It’s easy to talk about all the cameras. It’s exciting to talk about the all-seeing tower in the middle. That’s where the power seems to be concentrated, and power sells.

“The truth is that the people manning the tower are a pack of squabbling incompetents. The halls of power are full of bad craziness, with reams of data miscollected, misfiled, and misunderstood. Still, the weight of authority, arbitrarily applied, is real and crushing, and far too heavy for any one person to bear.”

The room was cold; some fool had cranked the air conditioning too far.

“There’s a second half to the prison’s design and no one seems to remember this. The second half is that the prisoners are isolated from one another. If they could coordinate, those few lonely bastards in the tower wouldn’t stand a chance. But their clients are kept separated and when the hammer comes down on one of them, all the rest can’t help but think ‘at least it wasn’t me’.”

She was close now, uncomfortably so. The urge to flee was overwhelming.

“That’s where the real power of the panopticon lies. It is spread around the circumference in the cell of every inmate. It’s like Disney. ‘Don’t worry little Dumbo, the power of surveillance was in you all along.’

“But how are you advising one another, in the face of our mounting influence? You’re writing Instructables about how to mask your personal digital fingerprint and telling yourselves that our victims had it coming because they didn’t take basic steps.

“So while we’re consolidating our strength, you idiots are all coaching one another into joint construction of solitary confinement.”

She took her glasses off and fixed me with her terrible gaze. I shivered as she leaned in close and whispered, “And that’s why we’ll win.”

I ran.

My hosts found me hours later in the marina’s bar, working my way through the fourth in a series of tall drinks with plenty of ice.

I said nothing about my encounter in the showroom. What was there to tell? That I’d had a conversation with my own paranoid delusions? That the security state had personified itself to lecture me about a french philosopher who’d died in 1984?

No. That was craziness, best left to the memory banks. The security state isn’t a person, it’s people. There’s so many of them and they’ve been given leave to take so many liberties that they’ve managed to become the environment. Like a demented terraforming project, they’re sucking down our communications and we’re breathing their air.

This is an ecological disaster and it demands an ecological response. We shouldn’t be protecting ourselves. We should be protecting each other.

My hosts were in fine spirits. The shopping trip had been a success and the boxes they had in tow carried the promise of excellent reclining. Good reclining is crucial in cottage country.

Weird Future

These are strange times.

    Tim Maly

    Written by

    Tim Maly

    big into cyborgs & architecture

    Weird Future

    These are strange times.

    Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
    Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
    Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade