Life without Google

The rise of the Internet in the last 20 years was tightly connected with the success story of Google LCC . It is one of the most valuable and powerful companies with an enormous knowledge about all of us. Even though their motto was Don’t be evil for a long time, they are undermining data protection laws and influencing political decisions about digital life on all levels, by their economic power, their search engine algorithms, controlling web hardware infrastructure and their gatekeeper function on Android smart phones and the most widespread web browser Chrome.

One day I noticed, that Google has too much control over my every day’s life, The crucial event was, when I logged out of my Google account with Chrome and my bookmarks were gone. Until then, I thought bookmarks are stored on my local hard disk. The real reasons are my frequent Google searches, while I am coding or searching for scientific data: The results offered to me by Google are biased and Google knows exactly, what I am interested in and working on.

In one of my first blog posts, I criticized Google and their intrusive behavior, but now it has reached a point, that I want to get rid of them.

Until recently, Google Chrome was the fastest and best Web-Browser. Many Web developer focus on Chrome to circumvent Internet Explorer’s inability to follow standards and lack of security (which got significantly better with Microsoft Edge). Not to forget Chrom’s cool DevTools, which simplifies work and increases productivity. The melting market share of Mozilla Firefox was another reason to accept the end of the Browser war with a clear winner: Chrome

Since I own Android smart phones, I tried not to store any data (like contacts or photos) at Google, Samsung or Mi-Cloud, with limited success. Every time I check the permissions, I realize that I am sharing more than I wanted.

A couple of weeks ago, I replaced the Google search engine with DuckDuckGo.com. Firefox has a nice plugin for various search engines and it’s easy to switch. I deleted Google Chrome from all my devices.

The feeling of not being tracked with every key stroke was a relief. I am aware that this is only a drop in the ocean (or not even that). Other companies, like Facebook,  Amazon or again Microsoft, are also intrusive. I know that Google does not care about me as a single user and can easily (at least digitally) send me to limbo. But I wonder, if there are other people out there, who might feel the same and care about their digital privacy.

Here is my action plan:

  • I use other search engines and map services, which do not track me.
  • I have Linux (Fedora) on my laptop, which gives me more control over data leaks.
  • I try to convince as many people as possible to quit Google.
  • I am looking for a Android free phone (Currently I try to switch off any contact to Google, e.g. App store, backup, browser, search functionality, mobile internet, …)

I wonder, if my Search Engine Optimization (SEO) programs, which store my blog posts in search engines (e.g. Google) will be successful this time. I hope that the protected privacy movement is on the rise (link1, link2, link3).

Quitting Google perfectly fits Google’s new motto: Do the right thing

 

Machines took over control

A few month ago, I flew to London Stansted and queued up for the custom control. There was a large group of people ahead of me and took about 20 min to reach to the customs officer, who was, to my surprise, a machine. A few  humans helped to properly fill the waiting lines. Only a small minority with an old, machine unreadable passport or technical problems could talk to a person.  This seems to be a common practice in the UK, but for me it was spooky, that machines took over such an  important security field.

Currently this border robots are able to scan my passport and compare my face with the saved electronic photo. I assume they are checking, if my name is listed at the National Crime Agency.

I was wondering, what might happen, if I was an illegal immigrant or a criminal. Will these machines arrest me? What measures are the machines able to take? Lock me up until the police arrive?

Since these machines are getting more and more intelligent and powerful, how might a future of automated security look like?

After being arrested, they might bring me to an police station run by machines. They could have lie detectors and body scanner. The police questioning is probably much easier and more efficient with a computer. A protocol is stored in the cloud and before I realize what is going on, a silicon judge will send me to prison, where I am watched by robots, which take care of my physical well-being.

After years in prison, when I served my sentence, they might release me at the border, in order to let me leave the country.

Who has to take the responsibility for software bugs or other possible errors in my scenario? Is the British police and politicians willing and able to extend the duties of border control robots? What are the technical limitations?

In science fiction the idea of machines supporting police work is already more than 30 years old: RoboCop was good enough for a successful movie, but does not meet the reality well. I like more the depressing atmosphere in the Matrix, when fighting against superior, violent, flying robots.

Since 2012 a South Korean prison has already some robotic help. The British police uses drones to observe its inhabitants, while the US kills thousands with drones. Even the NATO takes this issue serious and mentions ethical doubts.

A free society does not need machines for security. I vote for disarmament.

Turnkey Tyranny

When Edward Snowden used the term “turnkey tyranny” (at the end of the linked video) in 2013, I did not see the governmental surveillance systems as the key feature to replace democracy with despotism. Without underestimating Edward’s big achievements and the importance of pointing out the spying on communication systems, I classified the broad surveillance still as a dangerous and illegal way undermining our privacy, but I obviously underestimated the power of the spying system, built up by the NSA and other secret services like the BND in Germany.

Everybody is under the control of the watchers. If you don’t want certain parties to record and file your online activities, e.g. from diseases you are suffering from while consulting Dr. Google over websites you are reading to internet services you are consuming. (The Black Mirror episode “Shut up and dance” shows that in a shocking way. Even though the online activities of the main characters are reprehensible and illegal, it is striking, how people could be controlled.)

Now we are facing the inauguration of the next US president, who is lacking many important personal properties for such an powerful position. You don’t need to be a conspiracy blog author to feel a mild shiver together with serious worries about worldwide safety and global economy. Not to mention the decreasing level of political debates.

Like with global warming it is probably already too late and we are under his control: Here are my suggestions to make it at least more difficult to continue intruding into our lives:

  1. Use encryption: I don’t write many private emails and I hardly find partners for PGP. Similar to Filippo Valsorda, I am also struggling with encryption of my communication. Search for end-to-end encryption apps. I like for example Wickr and it’s nerdy image after its appearance in Mr. Robot.
  2. Try to point out privacy violations in your surroundings, discuss it with the violator and write letters to the editor of established media to increase public pressure.
  3. Don’t use a smartphone. Google play and iTunes App store are market places for intruding into your life. The smartphone producer are even worse: My wife’s Chinese cell phone showed the medal table of the Olympic games 2016. It was even impossible to delete this unrequested delivery.
  4. Get rid of your internet of things devices (like web-cams): Security is not in the producer’s top 50 list. In addition, the IoT devices might be abused as part of a bot-net.

It is an irony, that both secret services named in the first paragraph use encrypted websites. The blog entry “10 Reasons To Use HTTPS” considers the first and foremost reason to use https, to protect your users privacy.

Populism rules

The Austrian presidential election is going to a lap of (dis-)honor. The highest court decided to repeat the run-off ballot, which was narrowly won by the green party’s candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, a former economy professor. The loser in this election was the vice chairman of the right-wing populist party Norbert Hofer. Hofer and his party sued against the validity of the election. Even though there was no hint, that any vote was counted incorrectly, some of the election laws were violated (opening of the outer envelop of the postal votes too early, not all election-observer were present at all times, …). However, the highest court ruled, that the possibility for voter fraud is already enough to revoke the election.

Now the Austrian people have to pay for another election. Much worse is the chance to get an illiterate populist as a president. What a shame for Austria, if Norbert Hofer makes it.

Recently some reporters asked him, if he would have sued against the result of the election, even if he was the winner. Of course he would, Norbert replied. Obviously he didn’t expect the follow-up questions: The election in question was already the second round. In the first round with six candidates, Norbert Hofer got the majority of votes, which qualified him and the runner-up Alexander Van der Betten to the run-off ballot.

In the first round of the election exactly the same violations were observed, which eventually led to the annulment of the second round of the election.

The question to Norbert Hofer was: Why didn’t you sue against the result of the first round? But Norbert lied: I didn’t know about the violation of the election regulations at that time point.

Let me offer some options for an honest answer:

  1. I won. Why should I do anything against it?
  2. My interpretation of law is flexible, dependent on my advantage.
  3. I am used to defend my version of the truth. Why should I act differently this time?
  4. I do anything to win. Since I was the winner, there was no reason to act.
  5. There was a certain risk to upset the public, which would have reduced my chances in the run-off ballot.
  6. My advisers told me to keep calm about the violations of the law. I do what my advisers tell me to do.
  7. Everything happened behind my back. I have no idea, what’s going on.

There is probably some truth in each of these answers, even though none of them was selected by Norbert Hofer.

Conspiracy competitors

Recently I saw the first episode of the latest season of X-Files. They blamed their government to be ill-disposed against their own people. As examples they mentioned the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and Henrietta Lacks (Here is a link to the transcript). I did not know about the syphilis experiments but I read a book about the latter.

Henrietta Lacks is the donor of the first cancer cell line called HeLa, which could grow and divide outside of a human body in cell culture medium. This was the start of a new era in cancer research, because the effects of cancer drugs on human cancer cells could be tested in a petri dish. They didn’t ask for Henrietta’s or her relatives permission to take her cells and didn’t inform her family well about the detailed circumstances. Henrietta died but her family believed she became a kind of zombie, because a small part of her, the cells in culture, was still alive. You can still purchase these cells here.

If you read some of my blog posts and in particular my blog title you might get the impression I believe in a bigger plan behind the conspiracy I am writing about. I strongly reject that, but I do believe that main drivers of conspiracy, the effects of capitalism and neo-liberalism are not good for average people. Like during all times of human history a few win and the majority loose until the next revolution, when people request their share of wealth.

However, my tiny blog is not changing much. Currently I have about 400 readers per month. Other pages on the net with similar goals are more powerful and influential. For a moment, I would like to refer to these well written news-sites, the professional blog pages and my conspiracy blog as “us”.

The parties in this fight

There is no doubt that some of our critical statements are not well taken by some parties. The US and other governments, large corporations in general and specific companies in particular are frequent targets of our critics. Of course we are the opponents.

The weapons

How are the recipients fight against these attacks? Since this is an information war, it’s all about the public image and opinion. I would like to stress a citation of Mahatma Gandhi: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. Let’s focus on steps one to three, because the outcome is fairly unclear.

The strategy

Ignoring the drone papers and trying to to sweep the NSA affair under the carpet belongs to step one (they ignore you), X-files is the proof, that we are already at least in step two (they laugh at you) of the battle against us. The production company Twenty Century Fox (Rupert Murdoch) is surely a big player in the American entertainment business. They produced and published X-Files by making a joke about us. Exposing conspiracy became entertainment. The connections X-Files make in this TV format have some references to the real world but are ridiculous, unrealistic, and are surely no reason for concerns. X-files is a cartoon magazine.

Perhaps we already reached step three (they fight you) because they try to undermine our serious concerns and make a fool out of us by damaging the public image of conspiracy warnings in an entertainment program called X-Files.

The outcome

In X-Files we have a serious competitor with a huge public attention and audience. It’s a only tiny needle, which fulfills people’s need for a dose of conspiracy. We did not even get a glimpse idea of the real power of our competitor.

Popular outrage

Why we should not tolerate US remote executions by drones.

The drone papers were already published three month ago. They describe how American drones kill more than a thousand people in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The victims and their friends and relatives had no voice to make this terrible injustice public, until the brave journalists of the intercept got the respective files from a whistle-blower and published them. But nobody cares. After a few lines on several important news channels, the whole story was forgotten. Why such a scandal does not lead to popular outrage?

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” wrote Gerald Seymour 40 years ago. These crimes were mainly committed to protect American interests and officially to defend values of western civilization, which are democracy, freedom and civic rights.

drone with missiles
MQ-9 Reaper, Source Wikipedia

By killing so many mostly innocent people by drones or by shooting a missile into a wedding party we spurn the achievements of western civilization. One important corner stone of civic rights is a transparent legal system, which gives everybody the opportunity to defend himself in front of a court. Independent judges or juries come to fair court orders. If we let politicians and armies circumvent legislative authority, we risk to loose this right for ourselves and indirectly support tremendous injustice. In addition we maintain a ridiculous and immoral image, which we already have in many parts of the world.

Even for the US and their NATO partners difficult times are ahead. The army of enemies of the western world is ready to commit terror attacks. The secret services around the word are spending billions to observe everybody. As a result freedom and privacy are sacrificed as a global collateral damage. The eerie feeling, that soon the whole world is falling apart is getting stronger.

Here is my action plan:

  • Push the president and government of your country to stand up against the described double-moral. (When the Austrian president visits a dictatorship, the question weather he should mention human-rights in the respective country is always discussed. Strange enough, the double moral question is never mentioned, when one of the powerful western countries is being visited)
  • Express your opposition against breaking the international law.
  • Get inspired by “Time for outrage” by Stéphane Hessel.

I am part of the western civilization’s mind-set. I really like to live in Austria. It’s a nice and save place. Please help to restore our common ethics and morality.

Knowledge is key

In the last couple of days I attended a clinical cancer conference. I learned a lot about the clinical practice for this terrible disease and also about careless data protection habits. As we learned from our tweeting hero, the connection data are the low hanging fruits. And this is not different in conference business.

When entering the meeting-room of every scientific session of the conference, all participant’s conference badges were scanned (there was a convenient barcode on every id). Officially this measure was taken to print a list of attended lectures on everybody’s certificate of participation. (Who needs such a document?)

There was no conference booklet with a list of talks but an unstable android (and iOS) app available. Fortunately I selected most of my sessions beforehand by using a web-browser in my office. I assume this sounds paranoid, when I mention the easier tracking of my scientific interests, when I use an electronic device.

However, the interesting part was a little USB stick with presumably all abstracts (short summaries) of the conference presentations including scientific posters. It became a habit that sponsors are mentioned for a specific conference service like WiFi or public transport. In this case  every attendant got a little voucher for a USB stick to pick up at the booth of a pharma company. It’s a nice little, blue device with an USB plug, which looks like a memory stick.

I tried this USB stick with my private Linux laptop. Apparently nothing happened. No pop-up window appeared, informing me about a new storage device. When I looked into the list of USB devices, I made an interesting discovery: The new device identified itself as an Apple, Inc. Pro Keyboard [Mitsumi, A1048/US layout] (ID 05ac:020b).

An old article on heise security about keyboard emulation to crack a computer came to my mind. Even though I spend a couple of hours (using Wireshark on my USB hub), I could not find out all about my new blue friend. I just realized that the stick, dependent on the operating system of the computer, types some commands. One of these commands starts a web browser and connects to this link. (It works at least, if you are using an English keyboard layout). I could not find any data on this device but a lot of warnings (e.g. 1, 2) on the internet.

I feel a little uncomfortable when I let somebody type on my computer and open all opportunities to do nasty or intruding things. I assume this USB device is harmless and just connects me to the conference poster download page. Instead of the expected memory stick I got a hidden keyboard, I am supposed to plug into my computer. And I doubt, that this terrible data security image fits to the pharma company, which provided the device.

The conference posters are hosted on a web-site called poster-submission.com. The domain name is registered by Johann Woringer, the CEO of Wiz-Team and Co-Founder of Além Labs, a company that provides “Accommodation, transportation, accreditations and ticketing data management systems for the International Olympic Committee” for the last six Olympic games (from Athens 2004 until Sotchi 2014).

The rest are just speculations: Connection data from health-care and pharmaceutical companies e.g. who is interested in which drug or drug target is a valuable data set, helping to discover the hot topics in cancer research and research pipelines of participating (billion-Euro/Francs/Dollar) companies a bit earlier. Mr. Woringer is probably well connected to politics and industry.

Achievements of Civilisation

Living in peace in my country is a privilege, I can not appreciate enough. Civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and several other places in the world, are horrible. Cruelty of the soldiers involved and the terrible consequences of their activities are beyond my imagination. These countries are drowing in chaos and rational thinking and acting in a humanitarian way is presumably rare.

But here in Austria we live in peace for seven decades. It’s time to think about, what I like most on our stable society. For me the most important achievements of our civilisation are rules we agreed on and division of labour.

With “rules we agreed on” I am firstly referring to our legal system and secondly to our social rules. Irrational behavior and loosing control are considered as properties of a weak personality. Even in an argument in public most people stay calm and focused on the desired outcome, rather than let their emotions flow and break every bone in their oponent’s body. We developed cooperation, as Martin Nowak pointed out. The animal in us is properly domesticated, even though the driving forces behind, the social bundaries, are getting weaker in particular in larger cities.

The division of labour was stressed by my friend and colleague Manfred during an after-lunch coffee break. I am not referring to cultural achievements like specialization, economic systems, and monetarism. I would like to point out one small but important topic: There are state officials taking care of our security demands. We have police, which is called, if the agreed rules are not respected. For international situations we have an (presumably not too powerful) army. I am so glad, I don’t need to enforce my (well defined) rights with a pistol in my hand, which might bring me into dangerous situations with other armed citizens. The general absence of weapons in everyday’s life, gives me a feeling of security. And this feeling is supported by crime statistics.

In the United States of America, this very convenient division of labour leading to low crime rates is not among the highest goals of civilisation. A strong and powerful lobby acting ower almost 150 years, placed the strong belief into american brains, that a weapon at home – no, let me rephrase – doing the dirty work of taking care of one’s personal security is a cultural achievement and a citizen’s duty. I hereby invite everybody to listen to reason and end this gigantic lobbing campaign headed by Allan D. Cors (who took a rifle to school, when he was a boy) and co-workers against the interests of the population.

Even if the whole american population follows my appeal straight away, it takes many years until weapons are extinguished from peoples minds. Maybe it even helps curing the schizophrenic US-politics, that is abusing heroic terms like freedom and justice to bring instability and war over the world in order to serve economic interests of a few thousand financial leaders.

I wish there was somebody taking care of my digital security. I am most worried about financial transactions via swift, intrusion into privacy, and attacks on infrastructure like electricity and transport.

Simple minds

Recently I got a request from the business contacts platform linkedin, asking if I might share all my email addresses and passwords with them. They want automatically go through my mail account’s address books to find new contacts for me. They promise, that my passwords are save with them and they will use them entirely for the described purpose.

A year ago they asked me to change my linkedin password, because they became the victim of large scale data theft and my login was stolen. I think linkedin is testing, if I am completely crazy and exclude me automatically from head-hunter activities.

They should make sure that people, who are willing to share their passwords with them, let’s call them the simple minds, stay away from positions with responsibility. Rating agencies could fine tune their ratings of companies and countries based on the enrichment of simple minds in management or political positions.

On the other hand, the US watchlist could be cleared from false positives by the intersection with simple minds. The likelihood of founding a labour union is inversely correlated with the rate of simple minds among the employees. Political parties and marketing agencies should adapt their campaigns to simple minds, because this is a growing subgroup in the population. They are receptive for stupid ideas as long as you have an explanation for it and it is much easier to steer and control them.

As soon as you are successful with such a request like linkedin, you could consider to go down on an even lower level. You could ask them about their personal relationships, about the food that they like, their holiday destinations, and lots of other private stuff.

Oh wait, this idea is not really new. Seems like, I am living in the wrong century.

The world is changing

It has been a while since my last post in January this year. In the meantime lots of things changed in the online world. The naive part of the population (including me) realized, that the secret services around the world do more sophisticated spying, than opening hand-written letters with steam. A brave young man, Edward Snowden, was willing to give up his normal, comfortable life, to inform the world about the spying program of the NSA and GCHQ. There is a house in Vienna (18., Pötzleinsdorferstrasse 126 – 128) that belongs to the US embassy. There are rumours, that this house is used by the NSA. According to a newspaper, there is a direct connection to the back-bone of Austria’s internet in this house, capable of transmitting up to 70% of Austria’s telecommunication traffic. I assume that my country is not an exception and similar houses exist all over the world.

Since I know about these details, I don’t feel save anymore. It feels like, all my online activities are monitored. The Austrian Computer Association postulate the required actions in an open letter to the government. The cornerstones are:

  • transparency and democratic control of all surveillance activities
  • disclosure of all contracts with the USA and other countries regarding data transmission
  • data protection according to European law (in particular regarding the safe-harbour contracts)
  • definition of human rights for online activities
  • European companies should be founded that provide computer cloud services to break US monopolies
  • Security evaluation of software used in the government
  • Diplomatic steps to stop the spying programs (also economic espionage)
  • Freedom of press (see my last post) in particular for journalists and others reporting about this topic

The president of Brazil made a brave step ahead. I hope others will follow.