use security to protect your attention

Scary Thoughts on the Road

Last week I talked about the idea of a “Notification Free” week, when you could try to be less distracted by all the beeps and buzzes of the many apps. As promised, I shut down all the notifications on my phone and my iPad and went silent. That meant when people tweeted about me, I didn’t know it; I didn’t get the updates on mail; my phone didn’t tell me when apps updated, and my iPad didn’t let me know there was a new issue of GQ available.

Did it make a difference?

FOMO Strikes Back

At first the only real difference that I could see was that I kept checking the apps themselves – since I didn’t know about the updates, I needed to check them. Like Joel from Buffer, I found that I was the one who interrupted myself with incessant checking.

But the Fear of Missing Out slowly subsided, helped by two factors. First, I spent several days in Vancouver B.C. teaching, performing and training with a Japanese artist. I don’t have cel service in that country. It means that my interactions with the social internet are limited to the availability of wifi.The long breaks between these oases of connection helped to wean me off of that craving. In some ways, traveling to Canada was like a trip to a rehab center, where they slowly taper you off of your addiction to whatever is consuming too much of your life.

But the second reason actually kept me even from logging into those public wifi centers. Simply put, it was fear.

Scarier Than Fiction

You know in all those suspense thrillers or crime procedurals where the computers all work all the time, and instantaneously find the information needed by the protagonists and villains? You never have blue screens of death or spinning wheels of doom and whatever securities the high-end target has in place is easily overcome by the erstwhile hacker typing away at her keyboard in a coffee shop.

We pay a price in security and privacy for the fun of cameras and the cloud. Image Courtesy Vincent Brown.
1984 Is Starting to Look Charmingly Naive

Totally unrealistic fiction, right? Well, yes, except for that last part. According to this article in Medium, it’s pretty remarkably easy for a hacker to get all kinds of information through open networks such as you find in coffee shops. More than that, they can also put information onto your phones.

In less than 20 minutes, here’s what we’ve learned about the woman sitting 10 feet from us: where she was born, where she studied, that she has an interest in yoga, that she’s bookmarked an online offer for a anti-snore mantras, recently visited Thailand and Laos, and shows a remarkable interest in sites that offer tips on how to save a relationship…We try another trick: Anyone loading a website that includes pictures gets to see a picture selected by [the hacker]. This all sounds funny if you’re looking for some mischief, but it also makes it possible to load images of child pornography on someone’s smartphone, the possession of which is a criminal offense.

Given the proliferation of privacy threats out there, all of the sudden having a supercomputer in your pocket is less an asset and more a vulnerability.

Then again, it doesn’t have to be something as big as a hacker. It can be someone looking over your shoulder as you type in that four digit passcode, and boom, they’re in your phone. Those celebrities who had their phones hacked recently didn’t have hackers playing with code; rather they had people who had researched them gain access through password recall mechanisms that functioned exactly as they’re supposed to.

After reading the article, I took a couple of precautions. I changed my passcode on my phone and iPad to longer, ten-digit numbers. I looked for a VPN (that’s Virtual Private Network) client that might help secure my browsing (still looking, by the way).

Then things got worse.

Here to Help You

While I’m certain I turned out more liberal than many of my close relatives are comfortable with, there are some situations where I am as conservative as the rest of them. One of those is privacy; what is written or stored on my computers is mine, and I am very grateful for the fourth amendment protecting from illegal search.

Recently there was a court ruling that cel phones may not be searched without reasonable cause – meaning that if an officer pulls someone over for speeding, they do not have the right to look at recent text messages or status updates on a phone. In addition, even if they do grab your phone, they do not have the right to demand that you unlock it. They can guess, of course, but another security precaution I take is that my phone will delete all information if more than ten attempts are made to guess at the security code.

Then Michael Knight (yes, that’s his real name), a security expert friend of mine from the U.K., told me about a little loophole that I’d not known about.

One of the reasons I did not mind so much about the longer pass codes is because I have the nifty little biometric sensor on my phone. That meant that I didn’t have to actually put in the code – just pressing my thumb to the button would unlock the device.

Guess what? While the Fourth and Fifth Amendments protect me from being forced to reveal my security code, my thumbprint is not similarly protected. So I can have everything encrypted and locked away with complex codes…and they are legally able to force me to use my thumb to give access. It’s similar to the way that governments are legally able to seize and search your hard drive on your computer when you cross a border.

Security Through Naivety

If all of this seems a bit tinfoil hat to you, I can understand. It really may not affect you. However, not only do I want to protect my information, but I also have the records and personal stories of several clients on my laptop. It is ethically my responsibility to keep that from going anywhere other than where they would like. It’s why my laptop now uses encryption for all data, as well as a passphrase to access it. It’s not the strongest in the world, but according to experts it’s pretty durn good.

The tin foil has an additional silver lining, though, which is why you might want to try making your device more secure even if you feel no risk. I’ve found that since I can’t use the fingerprint sensor on my phone that I’m less inclined to want to type in all those numbers. As a result, I only check my phone when I actually intend to find out something – never on a whim. It has meant I’m more engaged with the world around me, and along with the lack of notifications I have found that the world seems a bit less noisy.

It gives me more room to identify the urgent, but more to the point, it gives me the space to enjoy the silence.
I’d invite you to try it, maybe just for this week. The silence? It’s pretty nice.

I’d also invite you to try out the Love Life Practice Podcast!
The most recent includes a special guest, world-class musician and wise person Jay Easton.
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