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When in the Course of Human Events…

I mentioned in the previous blog entry that I was thinking about setting up a VPN at home. It raised some eyebrows. “Why, what are you doing at home?” was the most popular, followed by some sort of direct or implied porn or piracy joke, some in worse taste than others.

I also mentioned in that self-same blog that I wasn’t too keen on the whole idea of corporations making a buck off of the internet using habits of me and mine, or even from the neighborhood weirdos who occasionally try to glom onto our wifi. “Oh, John,” they said, “you’re just being paranoid.”

Well, duh.

Being paranoid isn’t a bad thing unless your paranoia is baseless. I am not an alarmist or a conspiracy theorist. I’m a realist. I look at the world and where it’s going, and it makes me weep for the future, but also paranoid. Take for example:

  • The amazing theft of millions of government employee records by a hacker in 2015.
  • Russian interference in our past presidential election.
  • The Eff Bee Aye asking Apple Computer to create a tool for them to bypass iPhone security, for just this one phone. We won’t use it ever again. No really! Why are you laughing? That’s mean!
  • Finally, the very recent, and annoying, HBO hack which unleashed scores of Game of Thrones spoilers on the internet weeks in advance of the last few episodes this season. Grrr. 

Hacking is a very ambiguous and overused word. I cringe when the little girl in Jurassic Park tells her brother, “I’m a hacker,” the same way I cringe when people say, “trust me,” or “I won’t screw you over.”

Other than the three above, there are more specific concerns that hit closer to everyone’s homes, with source materials, should you think I’m making it up.

The internet is one big Mean Girl.

The Case of How Target Told a Clueless Dad His Daughter was Preggo.

Web pages, when you visit them, are delivered to your computer piece by piece [text, photos, graphics, HTML code, whatever] and then reassembled from your internet cache and drawn on your screen. If you visit a lot of web pages, you can develop a waxy internet build-up that slows your computer down over time, and you should get into the habit of clearing your cache regularly–especially if you live with nosy Parkers who want to snoop through your internet history to see if you’ve been googling yourself when no one else was home.

Corporations like to do that too. When you visit their sites, they drop a little bit of code in your web cache called a cookie, but in reality, it’s more like a breadcrumb because when the web sites you visit scan your cache and look at your cookies, they can follow the trail all the way back to, well, the first cookie saved there. For some people that can go all the way back to the first website they ever visited on that computer, because most people don’t ever bother clearing their caches unless some technoid geek type like me suggests they do so for whatever reason.

That’s how, when Target’s web servers tracked the girl’s browsing habits in the article above, they [as they do] sent her targeted marketing materials for baby bottles and diapers and such, much to her uninformed father’s surprise.

That’s also how Facebook can subject you to endless ads for underpants after you looked for some new underpants on Amazon. Also, I like saying the word “underpants.” Facebook also “unwittingly” outed some LGBTQ people to coworkers and their families by sniffing through their cookies and internet cache. then using the information to target them with ads for gay cruises and such.

Can you imagine? Honey, why is the computer telling me you’re into bondage and being domination? Sweetie…what’s a “gimp mask?”

Super scientific algorithms slog through your cookies and web detritus so companies know what ads to send your way, be they for goods and services, click-bait [You won’t BELIEVE what happened next] stories, or, yes, even political campaign ads. Because Big Brother is Watching.

No, Really. Big Brother is Watching

Your computer, when you go galavanting around the interwebs, is identified by a number. So is every other computer on the internet, including those of web sites, users, even smart appliances. That number is an IP address, and it’s one of the ways cookies track you, and essentially how the internet works.

IP stands for “internet protocol.” All these numbers rule the interwebz, but they’re generally hidden from you because those IP addresses are translated lickety-split by DNS, or Domain Name Servers, into the web addresses you know and love. Likewise, when you enter into a web browser, the DNS server searches its records, thinks for a moment, “Oh, this asshole,” then shoos you along to the IP of the server that hosts my site. Shoo, shoo.

Machines, being diligent little workers, keep a record of everything they do. Meaning everything you do.

So, recently, when the Attorney General requested that a hosting service surrender the record of IP addresses of all the computers that visited a site that coordinated protests scheduled during President Trump’s inauguration in January of 2016. That’s the IP addresses of some 13 MILLION machines/people. Even those of people who may have just cruised by on the way to other things, or were just curious, or actually wanted to protest for reasons of their own.

This move strikes many as, um, “slightly authoritarian,” and many more including the hosting company [and the noble Electronic Frontier Foundation, of whom I have been a fan since the good old 9600 baud dial-up modem days] have cried foul. Thankfully for the 13 million people involved, the hosting company, DreamHost, has withstood the pressure to comply.

Welcome to Room 101

I know this is from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Don’t start with me.

Nothing like the threat of a visit to Room 101 and cage full of hungry rats being strapped to your face, amirite? Factor into that a rereading of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the appearance of traffic cameras beside every stop light and highway sign, as well as heightened tension in the world…well, I get a little concerned.

I started thinking about a VPN over a year ago, but the story about the Ministry of… I mean, Department of Justice issuing a warrant when there was no crime committed, spooked me. That’s some really hardcore big brother shit going on there. It scares me.

But, John, you say, if you don’t have anything to hide, you don’t have anything to worry about. 

I know you’re saying it because everybody says it when I say I just set up my VPN. I don’t have anything to hide EXCEPT MY PERSONAL LIFE. THAT’S WHY IT’S CALLED PERSONAL. It’s mine, and not for general consumption unless I choose to share it. Also, because my browser history is not an accurate representation of my life. As a writer, I research a lot [ a LOT] of verkakte stuff that may be of use in something I’m working on, but of no application in my day-to-day life. Just because I want to know what the proportion of tinfoil to lye to water is to make lots of lovely, yet explosive, hydrogen gas, doesn’t mean I want to inflate a bunch of miniature Hindenbergs and explode them in my back yard.

totally want to do that, but you shouldn’t assume based on my weirdo browsing history.

Likewise, I am not trying to transmute lead into gold, just because I needed to look up a bunch of junk about alchemists. A search history of chemistry and alchemy doesn’t make me Gandalf.

So. I bit the bullet. I did the research and subscribed to a VPN service. It was the best combination of price and performance I could find, that also received high marks from the geek-o-sphere. Now, when I go online my IP Address, my identity, even my location, are masked. I haven’t noticed any reduction in internet speed [and I’ve been testing], but the devices that connect wirelessly seem to be doing, at least, no worse than they were doing before the switch. So, yay.

It was not particularly difficult, nor expensive, and if you share my concerns [or “paranoia” if you prefer], you might want to think about it, too. Watch the first two seasons of Mr. Robot, then get back to me.


Published inAutobiographicalGeneral