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Machinations 2018-07-22

The title of this post is a reference to a Bill Hicks bit in which he encourages people in advertising and marketing to kill themselves. Seriously, if you are, do.

img422 Superpooch is disappointed.

Today I was chatting with someone about tor... actually Tor Browser. My understanding is that the term tor refers to the network, and Tor refers to the custom browser. The idea behind the network is that when you are surfing your traffic is bounced through a few intermediate steps along the way to help anonymize your browsing. The reason it might be necessary is because some people worry that their ISP or some government is potentially watching or recording their digital usage. The Tor Browser is a specific build of Mozilla Firefox that has a bunch of security related changes and that specifically uses the tor network.

I have tried Tor, and didn't like it. I like the idea of generally anonymous communication and I like the idea of not being bubbled or profiled... but Tor is just plain a pain in the ass to use. It has some simple security settings, such as a slider that can select from a few profiles with varying degrees of "security". It also has a simple update feature that detects and downloads new versions with minimal interation (but not silent). However, if you simply set it to "a reasonable security level" you'll find that lots of web sites don't work anymore. You'll be glad to see that most of those "sign up for my newsletter" modal popups are gone, but you also probably won't be able to to log in to your banking site, or that classified ads site you like, or your electrical utility provider's site. Now you can of course make exceptions for these things, but frankly the typical Internet user is going to put up with about 30 seconds of that crap before they just say:

Fuck it, I am going back to what works.

That is where Tor falls down. The premise behind it is dandy, but in practice it is a fancy anonymizer for first world nerdy security wankers like me and the vast bulk of Internet users just don't bother with it. Patching layer after layer of security and privacy on top of shitty infrastructure is not the solution. Providing proper network services would be better, but people don't want to adopt anything that requires learning two extra clicks to upload photos to Faceborg or to Skype with grandma.

As I was thinking about this, I realized that in general digital communications are much shittier than they have to be. The vast vast bulk of Internet users don't care how anything works, they just want to click the button and talk to grandma. Ads, spam, scammers, junkware, trackers, beacons, native advertising, targeted ads, fingerprinting, and bulk collection are all just part of doing business and almost nobody seems concerned. Security and privacy are so far down the totem pole of priority that they are almost non-existent. It's not getting better either.

I've been passionate about digital security and privacy for a while. I started thinking about them in the late 80's when some fellah I met through citizen's band radio got me interested in computers. Through running a BBS and various professional gigs I learned all about providing services for users. Now, I just do it because I give a shit. I have been wondering though... is there really much reason to keep doing it? It seems to me most people just don't care how any of it works. They want to click the button and see photos of grandma at xmas. They want to drag and drop a web site with accounts and payment processing. They want automatic renewal of their purchase so they don't have to think about toilet paper ever again. They want to brag about how new and cool their shit is, even if they don't know how it works. People generally see digital communications as a magic box that should take care of privacy and security for them. Well, it isn't.

I'm skeptical that the general population of the Internet is going to be interested in knowing how communications works, how to ensure privacy, or how to validate security. I'm skeptical that digital communications will get better. I'm skeptical that the thing I have been passionate about for decades will ever be as good as it was when I first started to care. I'm not sure how long I can keep encouraging a kid that doesn't listen. I'm disappointed at how the mass of writhing zombies overthrew the castle, ate everything inside, and spread shit all over the walls. Thanks.

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