Why Every Activist Should Use a VPN/Tor and Oppose Mass Surveillance

In terms of cyber-security, activists tend to be the most vulnerable to attack both in the sense of their likelihood to be targeted by  governments and mass surveillance programs, and in regards to the notoriously weak cyber-security measures they as individuals, and as a community take. In 2017 when the Senate voted to make it legal for Internet Service Provider’s (ISPs) to sell your internet history to the highest bidder, a tech blog I follow called ‘The Tin Hat‘ (who I borrowed the above image from) made the claim that “Privacy in America now starts with a VPN”. Every activist should have a VPN and use Tor, and I will explain why below. And it is certainly true that a good VPN can restore the internet to what it once was, that it can give you the freedom to have reasonable security from entities hell-bent on violating your right to privacy. But the situation is far graver than just “privacy” alone. Mass surveillance is a cancer in the very heart of our “free society”.

“When people talk of the Freedom of Writing, Speaking, or thinking, I cannot choose but laugh. No such thing ever existed. No such thing now exists; but I hope it will exist. But it must be hundreds of years after you and I shall write and speak no more.” — John Adams Letter to Thomas Jefferson (15 July 1817).

This freedom existed briefly, I claim, shortly after the internet exploded in popularity. Children could talk in forums about Astronomy with experts in the field and no one knew or had any way of knowing who the other person was. People were free to say and think and research anything they wanted without fear of being watched or meticulously recorded. But then 9/11 happened and the NSA started watching everyone. Finding out about that destroyed the sanctity of the web, but the people have the right to know what their government is doing and Edward Snowden is a hero for what he did.

We had those freedoms once. I remember what the Internet was like before the NSA started spying on everyone and the government made it legal for ISP’s to sell your internet history to the highest bidder. As I said in my article “The Marxist case for Human Rights”, “In the digital age the right to privacy is also withering away more and more even (and especially) in the most “freedom loving” liberal democracies. But as Rosa Luxemburg correctly pointed out, “freedom is always the freedom of the dissenters… of the one who thinks differently”. Privacy in the digital age is the only real prerequisite to civil liberty. One is not truly free to dissent if one is being watched at every moment, (it is a well known and independently verifiable fact that people alter their behaviors when they are being watched, especially by authorities, and especially when these authorities retain everything a person said or thought or did indefinitely) and if one is being watched at every moment, one is not free at all. One doesn’t even have to wield this power to the fullest extent possible to destroy human liberty, its very existence is a terminal illness to every form of human freedom. In light of the horrendous abuses of power by NSA, GCHQ, and its accomplices, the Marxist left is bound by its principles to fight against mass surveillance, for the preservation of human freedom.” We are bound by our principles to fight against these abuses of power in the political realm, but it is also necessary to protect ourselves and our communities at the individual level as well.

Freedom and mass surveillance are incompatible, period. And activists, who dutifully express their right to dissent, are under extra scrutiny by mass surveillance programs. In East Germany, the purpose of the Stasi’s mass surveillance was not merely to “catch dissidents”. It’s primary purpose was psychological: to cause the people to self-censor out of fear of how a certain action or conversation might look to the authorities. In Czechoslovakia before the Prague Spring people had a “public opinion” which venerated the Stalinist government and a “private opinion” which often was opposed to it. We are not yet at that point, but more and more people are silencing themselves out of fear. “I wonder what this will look like to a government agent or employer in 5 or 10 years when I search for this or go to this website.” Surely all of us have decided not to search for something because of how it might look to big brother. For me I avoided researching the war in Iraq because I was afraid. A family member’s professor, I remembered, was interrogated by the FBI for doing research on the very same topic. People often joke about appearing on “the list”, as if it’s some trivial thing. Well us activists actually are on “the list” and some of us aren’t even doing the bare minimum to protect ourselves against the illegal mass surveillance programs targeting activists and activist organizations explicitly.

I came across a Reddit post awhile ago that laid out the dangers of mass surveillance that I think best lays out why one ought to be politically opposed to mass surveillance programs:

“I live in a country generally assumed to be a dictatorship. One of the Arab spring countries. I have lived through curfews and have seen the outcomes of the sort of surveillance now being revealed in the US. People here talking about curfews aren’t realizing what that actually FEELS like. It isn’t about having to go inside, and the practicality of that. It’s about creating the feeling that everyone, everything is watching. A few points:

1) the purpose of this surveillance from the governments point of view is to control enemies of the state. Not terrorists. People who are coalescing around ideas that would destabilize the status quo. These could be religious ideas. These could be groups like anon who are too good with tech for the governments liking. It makes it very easy to know who these people are. It also makes it very simple to control these people.

Lets say you are a college student and you get in with some people who want to stop farming practices that hurt animals. So you make a plan and go to protest these practices. You get there, and wow, the protest is huge. You never expected this, you were just goofing off. Well now everyone who was there is suspect. Even though you technically had the right to protest, you’re now considered a dangerous person.

With this tech in place, the government doesn’t have to put you in jail. They can do something more sinister. They can just email you a sexy picture you took with a girlfriend. Or they can email you a note saying that they can prove your dad is cheating on his taxes. Or they can threaten to get your dad fired. All you have to do, the email says, is help them catch your friends in the group. You have to report back every week, or you dad might lose his job. So you do. You turn in your friends and even though they try to keep meetings off grid, you’re reporting on them to protect your dad.

2) Let’s say number one goes on. The country is a weird place now. Really weird. Pretty soon, a movement springs up like occupy, except its bigger this time. People are really serious, and they are saying they want a government without this power. I guess people are realizing that it is a serious deal. You see on the news that tear gas was fired. Your friend calls you, frantic. They’re shooting people. Oh my god. you never signed up for this. You say, fuck it. My dad might lose his job but I won’t be responsible for anyone dying. That’s going too far. You refuse to report anymore. You just stop going to meetings. You stay at home, and try not to watch the news. Three days later, police come to your door and arrest you. They confiscate your computer and phones, and they beat you up a bit. No one can help you so they all just sit quietly. They know if they say anything they’re next. This happened in the country I live in. It is not a joke.

3) Its hard to say how long you were in there. What you saw was horrible. Most of the time, you only heard screams. People begging to be killed. Noises you’ve never heard before. You, you were lucky. You got kicked every day when they threw your moldy food at you, but no one shocked you. No one used sexual violence on you, at least that you remember. There were some times they gave you pills, and you can’t say for sure what happened then. To be honest, sometimes the pills were the best part of your day, because at least then you didn’t feel anything. You have scars on you from the way you were treated. You learn in prison that torture is now common. But everyone who uploads videos or pictures of this torture is labeled a leaker. Its considered a threat to national security. Pretty soon, a cut you got on your leg is looking really bad. You think it’s infected. There were no doctors in prison, and it was so overcrowded, who knows what got in the cut. You go to the doctor, but he refuses to see you. He knows if he does the government can see the records that he treated you. Even you calling his office prompts a visit from the local police.

You decide to go home and see your parents. Maybe they can help. This leg is getting really bad. You get to their house. They aren’t home. You can’t reach them no matter how hard you try. A neighbor pulls you aside, and he quickly tells you they were arrested three weeks ago and haven’t been seen since. You vaguely remember mentioning to them on the phone you were going to that protest. Even your little brother isn’t there.

4) Is this even really happening? You look at the news. Sports scores. Celebrity news. It’s like nothing is wrong. What the hell is going on? A stranger smirks at you reading the paper. You lose it. You shout at him “fuck you dude what are you laughing at can’t you see I’ve got a fucking wound on my leg?”

“Sorry,” he says. “I just didn’t know anyone read the news anymore.” There haven’t been any real journalists for months. They’re all in jail.

Everyone walking around is scared. They can’t talk to anyone else because they don’t know who is reporting for the government. Hell, at one time YOU were reporting for the government. Maybe they just want their kid to get through school. Maybe they want to keep their job. Maybe they’re sick and want to be able to visit the doctor. It’s always a simple reason. Good people always do bad things for simple reasons.

You want to protest. You want your family back. You need help for your leg. This is way beyond anything you ever wanted. It started because you just wanted to see fair treatment in farms. Now you’re basically considered a terrorist, and everyone around you might be reporting on you. You definitely can’t use a phone or email. You can’t get a job. You can’t even trust people face to face anymore. On every corner, there are people with guns. They are as scared as you are. They just don’t want to lose their jobs. They don’t want to be labeled as traitors.

This all happened in the country where I live.

You want to know why revolutions happen? Because little by little by little things get worse and worse. But this thing that is happening now is big. This is the key ingredient. This allows them to know everything they need to know to accomplish the above. The fact that they are doing it is proof that they are the sort of people who might use it in the way I described. In the country I live in, they also claimed it was for the safety of the people. Same in Soviet Russia. Same in East Germany. In fact, that is always the excuse that is used to surveil everyone. But it has never ONCE proven to be the reality.

Maybe Obama won’t do it. Maybe the next guy won’t, or the one after him. Maybe this story isn’t about you. Maybe it happens 10 or 20 years from now, when a big war is happening, or after another big attack. Maybe it’s about your daughter or your son. We just don’t know yet. But what we do know is that right now, in this moment we have a choice. Are we okay with this, or not? Do we want this power to exist, or not?

You know for me, the reason I’m upset is that I grew up in school saying the pledge of allegiance. I was taught that the United States meant “liberty and justice for all.” You get older, you learn that in this country we define that phrase based on the constitution. That’s what tells us what liberty is and what justice is. Well, the government just violated that ideal. So if they aren’t standing for liberty and justice anymore, what are they standing for? Safety?

Ask yourself a question. In the story I told above, does anyone sound safe?

I didn’t make anything up. These things happened to people I know. We used to think it couldn’t happen in America. But guess what? It’s starting to happen.

I actually get really upset when people say “I don’t have anything to hide. Let them read everything.” People saying that have no idea what they are bringing down on their own heads. They are naive, and we need to listen to people in other countries who are clearly telling us that this is a horrible horrible sign and it is time to stand up and say no.”

Every activist who values human freedom regardless of their political affiliations or tendencies has a duty to abuse these programs. They are grotesque abuses of power and constitute a mortal threat to any notion of a “free society”. We are one terrorist attack away from the “turn-key tyranny” Edward Snowden warned us about. If the United States becomes a dictatorship, or becomes unstable in any way, the socialists and dissenters will be the first to go. The threat of such a thing happening within the next 10-20 years has never been higher. But the fight against these programs on the political level is indispensable from the fight against these abuses of power on the individual level.

DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) came out last year recommending intermittent Tor usage for their members and fellow activists. But Tor alone, in my view, does not go nearly far enough.

Many socialists and activists today happily use digital tools critically vulnerable to mass surveillance without thinking twice. Even socialist organizations coordinate their actions exclusively through Google and Facebook with no backup for if –god forbid– things go wrong. If some awful terrorist attack happened and the increasingly far-right government took emergency measures to ensure its “political stability and national security”, the socialist left today would disappear with a whimper not a cry.

Even in our pre-1984 world, political repression against the socialist left is very real. Members of Occupy Wall-street were routinely harassed and surveilled by the FBI, leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement even got their doors kicked in when protests became “too big” of “violent” (as if somehow they were responsible for the rogue actions of a few individuals!). The Stalinist-Maoist FRSO (Freedom Road Socialist Organization) was successfully infiltrated by the FBI less than 10 years ago, and these activities are routine even in the post-cold war era. And unlike Maoism, the ideas of democratic socialism actually resonate with millions of Americans today. Socialism is coming back, and so too is the government repression of the socialist movement. Surely DSA and other democratic socialist organizations are seen as a much bigger “threat” to the status quo than a few cloak-and-dagger Maoists. A Trotskyist comrade I know claims he even found out that his wife, the woman he married, was an undercover FBI agent. A black activist was recently jailed by the FBI for the speaking out against police brutality on Facebook. You cannot make this stuff up.

In light of Snowden’s revelations, you would have to be an idiot to assume that this harassment and surveillance was limited to the physical world alone.

If you are an activist with any level of influence or popularity, you are being watched, your communications are being intercepted. And I don’t mean you are being watched in the same sense that everyone is, I mean the bulk data the government collects on you is subject to actual scrutiny by real people. Content, not just metadata. If you go to a protest the police can find out who you are simply by intercepting your cell phone signal with an IMSI catcher, something extremely common in urban areas, and from then on you are on a list.

Everyone, but especially activists, should take measures to avoid and obfuscate the governments illegal mass surveillance programs.

Here is a list of resources you can use to gain the information you need to protect yourself:

Privacytools.io (mirrored on Thought Foundry Blog)

EFF’s Surveillance Self Defense Guide

EFF’s Surveillance Self Defense for Activists

EFF’s Guide for attending protests (US)

EFF’s Guide for attending protests (international)

Tor Project

Non-biased VPN reviews

As a standard for individual activists, I personally would recommend the following:

You should use a good VPN, not a “free” VPN but a paid one. Non-biased VPN reviews can be found at ThatOnePrivacySite. You should keep your VPN on all the time, and test for DNS leaks, so as to ensure all internet traffic 24/7 coming to and from your phone or computer is encrypted. When you are researching political topics, you should use the Tor Browser to further encrypt your communications. You should be running Linux by default, even an easy-to-use Linux distribution like Ubuntu or Linux Mint. You should avoid OS X, and Windows 10 like the plague. Don’t store anything embarrassing or that can be used against you on iCloud or Google Drive. Remember when the FBI tried to get Martin Luther King Jr. to kill himself by threatening to release knowledge of his affair? Yeah, don’t let that happen to you. Your computer and phone should use a strong passphrse (not password) and everything without exception should be encrypted. Don’t message other activists using SMS of Facebook Chat, use Signal or another end-to-end encrypted messaging system. If you go to a protest, bring a burner or keep your phone turned OFF. And finally, tape your damn webcams. Do it on your laptop, your phone, everything. You may think this is “paranoid”, but the reality is, you are being watched, and you are extremely vulnerable if you do not do even the bare minimum to protect yourself.

As a standard for socialist and activist organizations, I personally recommend the following:

Communications within an organization should be end-to-end encrypted by default. Emails should use PGP encryption as the standard. Websites for socialist organizations should use HTTPS encryption and ideally be mirrored on the Tor network. Facebook may be crucial to organizing protests and other events, but individual members of socialist organizations should use mediums of communication that are much more difficult for the government to intercept.

Now many people will probably try to defend these programs and claim “I have nothing to hide”! But you know, it was confirmed by the white house that mass surveillance programs haven’t stopped a single terrorist attack since their inception. Also the quote “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear” was popularized by Joseph Goebbels, you know, the propaganda minister of Nazi Germany. I hope I have laid out why privacy in the digital age is the only real prerequisite to civil liberty today, that it isn’t a matter of having something to “hide” (i.e. wrongdoing) but a matter of having everything to protect. Freedom is always and exclusively the freedom of dissent! If this doesn’t convince you still, let me resort to the spirit of the law, as much as I hate legal formalism. Here is the fourth amendment, that by some alchemy “doesn’t apply” to the digital world- so say the enemies of liberty within our own government:

Amendment IV

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Also Article 12 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights echo’s this proclamation:

“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

As Benjamin Franklin correctly said, “Those who would give up Essential Liberty, to purchase a little Temporary safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”. We would be much “safer” if the police could search anyone at any time without reason, and surely crime would go down exponentially. This is the philosophy NSA uses to justify it’s illegal and immoral mass surveillance programs. But the point of liberty is to protect the people from the very threat the state poses to the people. The point of liberty is freedom, not “safety” or “security”. And as activists who face a much grander threat to our liberty than ordinary people, we can, should, and must defend ourselves from these malevolent intrusions and abuses of power.

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