A Random Walk Through The Risks of Silicon Valley, by Epaminondas

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As a technology executive who has worked extensively with most of the big, high-tech firms (Microsoft, Google, Verizon, Dell, Qualcomm, and more), I thought that it could be helpful to share a perspective on the general role of technology on prepper thinking and planning. This readership is much more sophisticated than most, but the hard fact is that most of us cannot live an independent, off-grid lifestyle for a variety of reasons. Technology is the great enabler and force multiplier that can make it much easier to work remotely, maintain close contact with family and friends while benefiting from the vast knowledge of the Internet.

The danger zone here is around the data. Silicon Valley companies are not deliberately trying to repress freedom. They are providing technologies to drive new solutions and profits that can often have the unwanted side effect of providing Big Brother an unprecedented tool for compromising freedom. A big part of the problem is that companies never think (or care) about the freedom impact.

Here is how I view the risk/reward of certain technologies and current events in technology:

Mobile Phones

The network needs to know who and where you are to deliver a call, just as a mailman needs to have your name and address to deliver a letter. If you are uncomfortable with this, use a VoIP account for your telephone and access it from any browser (using a VPN) to check voice mail. While Blackberry devices have the highest security of any mass market phone, the company is dying and the U.S. government can still access anything that they want. In about five years, 5G technology will be here and it will include a direct handset-to-handset ability that can keep some communications off of the main network. I would consider a Blackberry for secure third world messaging. Most countries outside of the big ones cannot crack the encryption, and some (India) have mandated a back door in return for market access. One thing to keep in mind is that location technology is now embedded in much more than just phones and cars. A GPS module with antenna is now smaller than 17mm by 17mm and can be put into almost any electronics.

Google

I would avoid all Google products (Gmail, Android phones, et cetera) like the plague. Google is in the data business, and they are not shy about using any and all information that touches their world. For them it is a business decision, since they are all about data in every form. Businesses of any size are concerned enough about protecting their information that they will not use Google for anything. The perception in Silicon Valley is such that when they acquired Nest (a smart home thermostat), people in tech starting removing Nest devices from their homes. Google has now added video capabilities for a light home security monitoring capability. The latest Google Nexus phone is made by Huawei, the big Chinese telecom company with close ties to the Chinese government. The U.S. government has banned Huawei from selling network equipment to the U.S. due to security concerns (CNBC has a story on this.) As a friend of mine, who is a top mobile industry analyst, jokes, “If you buy a Google Nexus phone, you have four people listening to you– Google, NSA, Huawei, and the Chinese government!”

Apple

Apple upgraded their security on the ***AMAZONamazon.com/iPhone-Plus-Gold-16GB-Unlocked/dp/B00OB5TCN6/ref=sr_1_10?ie=UTF8&qid=1458782988&sr=8-10&keywords=iphone***iPhone in the past few years, hence the growing issue of the U.S. government’s request for Apple to unlock the iPhone. There are a few challenges here, starting with the government’s request. The government is asking for a master key to unlock any iPhone at their discretion versus a specific request to unlock the terrorist iPhone in question. We should all be very concerned about any back door technology. Experience has proven that the government cannot protect the most important secrets that they have, let alone a master skeleton key to a widely used operating system.

In speaking with some of my colleagues, I am a bit surprised that the government is making this request, as I would expect that the NSA or some other U.S. agency would already have the capability to unlock an iPhone. I am not a conspiracy kind of guy, but I do wonder if this unlock request is being made to give the world an overblown sense of security when using an iPhone. Cracking a password is mainly a function of the length of the password, and the U.S. certainly has enough brute force computing power to work on this problem. (An InfoSec Institute ***LINK to http://resources.infosecinstitute.com/password-security-complexity-vs-length/***article about password security is informative on the subject of password complexity versus length.) It has also been reported now that a FBI technical expert could have retrieved that suspect’s iPhone data from an automatic cloud backup, but they had an accidental “fat finger” incident. While not impossible, I find this unlikely, as this would be the first approach that anyone would try.

There is one more interesting dimension to the unlock request. Silicon Valley companies felt very burned by the government as a result of the Snowden disclosures and other information leaking to the public. They are now reacting in such a way that any request is suspect, mostly out of a concern for public perception rather than a strong feeling around personal liberty. Don’t forget that Google quickly bent to Chinese pressure for a back door to all data passing through Google in China a few years ago. Most other technology companies also need to cut some sort of deal to expose data and user information to do business in China. While these companies are not necessarily anti-liberty, they tend to think in terms of self-interest instead of principle.

Amazon Echo

You may have seen the Alec Baldwin commercial for this device during the Superbowl. Yes, you can now control more things around your home using a voice interface device. Google also has a similar feature now embedded into their browser and mobile devices, and even Microsoft has added Cortana into Windows 10 that also responds to voice commands. As tempting as it is to act like Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek, I would advise against these types of technologies. We know that these types of user interfaces can be easily hacked, and someone could use the always-on microphone to commit identity fraud or other bad acts. To enable this functionality is to voluntarily place listening devices around your person and your home that are potentially open to anyone. If these technologies are not in constant “listening mode”, they do not work. That means they need to analyze every word they hear to recognize when they are being given a command.

Traveling Abroad

I am not aware of any issues when traveling to Western countries, but look out when going to place like China or Russia. China has a very deliberate approach to capture the data on most anything that touches a network within the country. Most companies of any size have taken the approach of giving travelers a temporary laptop with minimal information for travelers visiting places like China. This approach has been well documented by research. China employs huge numbers of people to constantly monitor phone calls, emails, et cetera. They mandate special versions of all major world technologies to give them access and control before allowing deployment in China. This approach even applies to mobile phone standards and WiFi. One must assume that any and all communications in China is being monitored.

Social Networks

As often stated on this site, social networks are fraught with issues. The entire purpose of their existence is to coax data out of the user that can then be sold to advertisers and many other third parties. While I personally need to be a LinkedIn user for professional purposes, I go so far as listing a location much larger than where I actually live. Of course, please do not be that person who publicly advertises when you will be on a business trip! Facebook is probably the worst, as they promote “quizzes” to unveil more and more personal information. While there has been a backlash against potential employers mandating access to personal social media accounts, the fact is that they can still find most of what they want. There are tools out there now that allow you to see anyone’s email on LinkedIn, regardless of whether you are connected to them. Tools, like Snapchat, are very popular with younger people and are advertised as being temporary. Users are told that they can make sure that the videos are deleted within ten seconds of viewing. Don’t you believe it! This assumption is very naïve, and the latest information tells us that Snapchat data could be as persistent as anything else on the web. If you do not want something to be on the Internet, do not upload it!

Parting Thoughts

A good rule of thumb that I have used with our children is that anything you electronically publish– email, social, et cetra– is forever and everywhere. Cross platform data mining is becoming so good that there is a new class of startups offering very accurate alternatives to FICO scores, using hundreds of seemingly mundane data points. This could be everything from your Instagram photos to your spending at the grocery store. It is very difficult to escape all of this, but you can work to minimize and control what you can.

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