The New Oil

Data privacy & cybesecurity for normal people
TheNewOil.org

About the Author & the Book

Shoshana Zuboff is no stranger to technology and the way it impacts our modern life. With a Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard (where she's tenured, by the way, in the Business School), she's written on such topics as the future of work in the digital age (In the Age of the Smart Machine) and somewhat predicted the current state of capitalism in her book The Support Economy (assuming I read the Wikipedia synopsis correctly, truthfully I haven't read any of her other works myself).

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is arguably Zuboff's best-known book, and has certainly become one of the foundation “must-reads” in the world of privacy. It outlines a brief history of “how we got here” in terms of surveillance, notes the ways that Big Tech and the government often work together, explains how Big Tech encroaches on our privacy, and explains how all of this fits into a larger concept of our individual freedom of choice and a sort of “class struggle” between us as individuals and Big Tech companies as they seek to undermine our freedoms in exchange for profits.

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Next week, gift-giving season officially beginning in the United States (and at least a few other places, I presume) with Black Friday. As such, I figured this would be a great time to discuss safe shopping tactics. In what is becoming my own yearly tradition here at The New Oil, below are my list of online shopping tips, updated to reflect any techniques or strategies I've picked up in the last year. (Note: some of the services I suggest offer affiliate programs which The New Oil has signed up for. Affiliate links are clearly marked and are totally optional.)

  • Pay with cash in person. There’s a large push for credit card usage in the US, and it has some personal finance benefits. Cards often come with cashback and purchase protection, and while the risk of skimming still exists, fintech (financial technology) security has come a long way. However, cards are still a privacy nightmare. Your shopping data will absolutely be sold by your bank to data brokers. As such, cash is king. But if you need some less-paranoid, more practical reasons to use cash: if you’re buying a gift for someone who has access to your bank statements (significant other, parent, etc) it can help shield your purchases – both the site and the amount – and keep the gift a surprise. Furthermore, holiday spending and gift giving is often a source of debt in the new year, so using cash will help you stick to your budget. Personally I think racking up a boatload of new debt is a really crappy way to start the new year.

  • Of course, online shopping has long been popular and even moreso during Cyber Monday (not to mention some services are online-only). For online transactions, use pre-paid cards or card-masking services like Privacy.com, MySudo, or ViaBuy (if you live in Europe) to avoid having your real information stolen. If a scammer steals your info, the effects could be as minimal as having to get a new card or as serious as draining your bank account, stealing your identity, or even stalking you. So I definitely encourage you to use a masking service of some kind. Be aware that Privacy.com and MySudo essentially function as banks in this scenario, so they will ask for some personal information that some people may not be comfortable with. If that's the case, call your bank and ask if they offer virtual card services. Some banksk do – including large ones – and it's becoming more popular. You won't have the privacy benefit of having your transactions shielded from the bank, but you'll get the security of not having your card number stolen. Personally I’m a fan of Privacy.com for a lot of reasons (I actually have an affiliate link you can use here if you're interested) but this isn’t the time or place. Feel free to check out all of the solutions suggested and see if any of them are right for you.

  • Use HTTPS. HTTPS is a powerful and effective encryption method for data-in-transit (aka web traffic) that helps protect your sensitive information as it shoots across the web. The vast majority of the internet is now securely encrypted so you’re probably covered, but be vigilant anyways. All four of the browsers I recommend on my site – Brave, Firefox, LibreWolf, and Tor Browser – offer some type of “HTTPS-Only Mode” that will automatically upgrade connections when possible and warn you when it's not. On Brave, go to Settings > Privacy and Security > Security and enable Always use secure connections. On Firefox, Librewolf, and Tor Browser, go to Settings > Privacy & Security and scroll all the way down to HTTPS-Only Mode. Make sure you select Enable HTTPS-Only Mode in all windows.

  • Use a PO Box. PO Boxes can serve tons of great purposes that you didn’t even know you needed. For starters, they start off inexpensive, in some places as little as $20/year. They can be handy because your packages don’t sit unguarded on your porch while you’re at work, they sit safely inside the building of your box. And of course, you don’t have to worry about some stranger on the internet snagging your home address, whether that’s the random person on Etsy, the rogue employee at Amazon, or the cybercriminal who hopefully didn’t steal your information because you already implemented the above bullet points.

  • Use alias email addresses. These are services such as SimpleLogin (affiliate link here) and AnonAddy that offer you email addresses that automatically forward to your inbox. The website you sign up for only ever sees your alias email address, but it all arrives in the same easy-to-manage place. The privacy protection here is that it keeps you from being cyberstalked (there are lots of ways I can find your various other accounts just from an email address) and makes it slightly harder for companies to track you. The security benefit is that it changes your login on each site and makes it harder for credentials caught up in data breaches to be weaponized against you (see credential stuffing). And as a practical benefit, once you've signed up for these sites, they usually spam you with offers, newsletters, and other marketing crap. Usually you can simply click “unsubscribe” but some of the scummier sites don't respect that request. With an alias email address, you simply turn it off and stop getting the spam. Imagine having a peaceful, organized inbox again. Wonderful.

  • On the topic of security benefits, be sure to use strong passwords with a good password manager and use two-factor authentication (2FA) on all accounts that offer it. I know the holidays are a hectic time for most people with travel and family and such, but it also usually means more paid time off for most people. Take advantage of some of that time off and set aside an hour or two to pick a good password manager, change your passwords and password habits, and enable 2FA. This is one of the single most effective things you can do to protect your online accounts, and on top of that it's free and easy, yet still few people do any of this stuff. Doing this step alone is one of the one most powerful things you can do to protect yourself year-round. Speaking of year-round...

  • Don’t quit on December 26. The thing about these habits is that they’re great any time, not just around the holidays. Shopping is something we do all the time, all year, and these strategies can be implemented there, too. You can pay cash at the grocery store. HTTPS can protect your Facebook login from a random cybercriminal just as much as your card number. Online data breaches are quickly becoming a daily occurrence, so using card-masking can prevent your card number from getting permanently posted to the dark web (if you’re not worried about that, clearly you’ve never had the hassle of updating EVERY service you use after a card number changed for any reason). Even a PO Box can be a neat thing to have on hand if you rent and move in the same area frequently, if you need an address on file for work (again, data breaches), or freelance and need somewhere to send checks or a return address for merchandise you sell.

Take some time to think about which of these strategies can benefit you most. HTTPS is something that takes just a few seconds to ensure is enforced and you never have to think about it again. A PO Box can be easily added into your routine by renting one nearby or on your way to/from work. Cash can be handy as well to help you stick to a budget. I hope these tips help keep you safer online this holiday season, and good luck finding that perfect gift!

You can find more recommended services and programs at TheNewOil.org. You can also get daily privacy news updates on Mastodon or support my work in a variety of ways here.

What is Wire & Why Do You Need It?

Wire is an end-to-end encrypted (E2EE) messenger available on Linux, Mac, Windows, Android, and iOS. I have long touted the need for E2EE in your daily communications for both practical and philosophical reasons. For practical reasons, it can protect sensitive communications like financial discussions, upcoming plans, and NSFW pics/texts if that’s your thing. For philosophical reasons, I think that everyone should use encryption whenever possible to normalize it and make mass surveillance less feasible/practical/economical.

The Good

Wire has a lot of valuable features. In addition to the obvious things that make it recommended by this site such as being open source and audited, one major advantage of Wire is that it is username based. You can sign up entirely anonymously by signing up on desktop, using a VPN (or Tor), and using a throwaway email. Even without hardcore anonymous signup, you can still retain a great deal of privacy by using a forwarding email address and not submitting a phone number or real name. And because you pick a username, that means you can privately communicate with others without having to provide any personal information like a phone number to that person. You can also have up to three accounts on a single device, allowing you to easily compartmentalize work and personal life.

Image Wire on Android

According to their privacy policy, Wire does not retain any encryption keys, and uses TLS to encrypt metadata when possible. They claim not to retain copies of encrypted data after it has been delivered, and to only keep technical logs for 72 hours for the purposes of troubleshooting and abuse-prevention. Analytics (sending crash reports on iOS and keeping troubleshooting logs on Android) were opt-in (not on by default) when I signed up for an account. Speaking of Android, Wire is available for F-Droid and seems to work just fine without MicroG or Play services, meaning it should work without issue on any degoogled device.

In my review last year, I noted that Wire was slow. This no longer seems to be an issue – or at least, not a Wire-specific one. When I first started testing it – admittedly during a slow stretch at the day job – I noticed right away that my Android device took a little longer to send and receive messages than my iPhone. But once I got home on a different network, they both worked just fine. I also noted last year that Wire was feature-deprived. Specifically I noted a lack of voice messaging and poor GIF support. This also seems to have been fixed. GIFs use GIPHY (probably not proxied like Signal, so use at your own risk), and voice messages have been added. They even have a little drawing board so you can hand-write notes and a “ping” feature to get someone’s attention (if you prefer not to simply say “hey man, you there?”).

Ultimately, I think Wire’s biggest features are the universal availability in terms of devices and the support of usernames. These two features alone make it a powerful choice worth considering.

The Bad

Image Wire on Windows 10

However, Wire is not without its drawbacks, and there are quite a few worth considering. Let’s start with a recent development: who owns Wire? A few years back, Wire took a significant amount of investment from a venture capital firm (who hates VPNs, by the way) called Morpheus Ventures, who’s other investments seem to be pretty heavy on the “privacy invasive” side of the spectrum, apps and companies who try to use data to tackle various “problems.” The nature of this relationship was never really fully explained, and it remains that way. Currently Wire is listed under the “Other investments made by Morpheus, our founders or funds previously managed by them.” Pretty vague. Is Wire “previously managed”? Or are they “other investments”? Additionally, around the same time as this investment, Wire had moved their headquarters to the US so they could qualify for said investment (and others), but now their website states they are headquartered in Berlin, Germany. Where is Wire based? Who owns how much of it? These question are unclear. I reached out to them for clarification a few weeks back, but never got an answer since I’m not a paying user. (You can read more about the initial investment and move here, but be aware that this article is from 2019.) It’s also important to know what got Wire booted from Privacy Guides in the first place: changing the privacy policy without announcing it. While this is common for many services, it’s troubling for privacy- and security-advocating services in particular.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Wire is centralized. A premium feature does allow it to be federated for enterprises, but for the average free user, the main centralized server is your only choice.

Conclusion

Wire is far from perfect, but to be honest there is no perfect messenger in the privacy space. The ones that are user-friendly usually have glaring flaws, and the ones that are almost perfect are usually nightmarish to implement and/or use. Wire is definitely not for everybody, however I think it offers some powerful advantages – much of the metadata collection can be outsmarted with a simple VPN and a forwarding email address (and by using it on desktop only, if your threat model is that severe) – and the ability to have a username instead of a phone number is something that can’t be discredited. However, I don’t think Wire is right for everyone. Ultimately I think Wire might be a good trade-off between Matrix and Signal: a little more user-friendly than Matrix, but doesn’t require a mobile device like Signal does. Ultimately, as always, it depends on your needs and threat model.

You can learn more and download Wire here.

You can find more recommended services and programs at TheNewOil.org. You can also get daily privacy news updates on Mastodon or support my work in a variety of ways here.

Perhaps one of the most underrated and feared things in the quest to protect your privacy is the dreaded privacy policy. Many a question I see – namely the “what do you guys think of [insert service here]?” on Reddit – could be quickly and easily solved by simply taking a couple short minutes to peruse the privacy policy. So this week, I want to talk about how to read a privacy policy – or more accurately, how I read a privacy policy. While privacy policies don’t hold all the answers to your questions, I strongly believe they are an invaluable starting point when researching any new product or service.

This blog post a little longer than usual, but it just didn’t feel right to break it up into two parts, so bear with me.

What is a Privacy Policy and Why Should You Read It?

Perhaps we should start at the beginning, just in case. A privacy policy is a document located on nearly every website, app, or service [if they don’t have one, that’s a huge red flag right there] that explains what information the service collects, what they do with that information, and any applicable laws or promises, like “we will delete your data 30 days after you submit a deletion request” or “here’s who to contact if you feel like you have a complaint.

In my experience, there’s two main reasons people ignore privacy policies: they’re complicated, and companies lie. I’ve pointed that out many times in the past myself: Apple lied when they said that humans don’t’ listen to your Siri recordings, Google allegedly lies all the time about honoring the location data toggle in your account, Uber lied by omission when they covered up a data breach in 2016 for years rather than informing victims. (Side note: I’m not a Verge fanboy, that was just the most reputable outlet my search times pulled up tonight.)

Having said that, I still believe privacy policies are worth reading. While companies lie, they never lie worse than the truth. What I mean by that is that if a privacy policy says “we track location data in real-time,” you can probably take that at face value. Never will a company say that and then it turns out they weren’t actually collecting or selling location data. Now, it’s entirely possible they’re collecting a lot more. Maybe they collect your contacts or what other apps you’ve got installed and they aren’t admitting to it. Maybe they’re selling the data to targeted advertisers and not disclosing that either. But there’s no way they aren’t collecting location data even though they said they are. Nobody will ever claim to be worse than they really are. This means that if you read a privacy policy that looks really bad, you can bet that it’s at least that bad. It might be worse, it might not be, but it definitely isn’t better than that, so if it’s full of things you don’t like, you can just skip it right off the bat.

Now, let’s move back to the first reason: privacy polices are complicated. Truthfully, I don’t believe that. In fact, I find most of them to be overly broad and vague. As the saying goes: this is not a bug, it’s a feature. Privacy policies – and Terms of Service – are intentionally written to be nonspecific to protect the company. Legally speaking, companies benefit from being both broad and specific. For example, if I said that “I always drive on the road,” and I defined a road legally as “any surface that is frequently traveled” (and then went onto to define travel as “any form of movement including but not limited to walking, running, bicycle riding, and car riding/driving”) then I could make a pretty compelling case that I do in fact always drive on the road, even as I’m crashing into the sidewalk. Notice how by being overly broad, I’ve given myself the freedom to do pretty much anything and get away with it. That’s the entire point of “legalese.” In this post, I hope to help dispel some of this vague legalese and help you look for key words that will help you make sense of nearly any privacy policy.

Things I Read (and What They Mean)

Unfortunately there is no standard privacy policy template. Some of them are thousands of words long and cover a company in every legal aspect. Others – more modern ones from startups, which I’ll get to shortly – try to be user-friendly by saying this like “We never share your data. Period. That’s the entire policy.” Most of them do contain a few commonalities though. For example, most of them are divided up into sections. The sections that I pay attention to are “What Data We Collect” and “What We Do With That Data.” These sections could have different names, for example “What We Do With That Data” could be called “How We Use Your Data,” or “When We Will Share Your Data.” It’s important that you be able to apply a little bit of independent thinking to be able to understand what you’re looking at so you can navigate it accordingly. I’ll explain in the next section why I ignore the other sections.

Let’s talk about keywords. Usually privacy policies will list a lot of things directly that they open admit to collecting to. For example, Bookshop.org clearly admits to collecting “name, email address, mailing address, or telephone number [when you sign up for the newsletter], time zone, language, screen resolution, and other usage preferences you select when using the website, device keyboard settings, the search terms you entered into a search engine that may have led you to the website, the Internet service provider (ISP) or mobile platform you use,” and “other device and website access information such as your browser type, operating system, Internet Protocol (IP) address, referring/exit pages, and other unique device identifiers.” While that’s a lot of data, in my opinion, it’s pretty self-explanatory. You may need to slow down and take it piece by piece to really understand what all that says, but none of it is complicated or overly technical. “Time zone, language, and telephone number” are all very common things, as are screen resolutions, keyboard settings, search terms, and a lot of the other data they cite.

In some cases, the privacy policies are obnoxiously vague to the point of being useless. Here you’ll have to learn to read between the lines. For example, a while back I wrote a blog about diet apps, and one of the privacy policies I cited as being abysmally vague was MyNetDiary. They state that they “collect personal information” and “may combine information about you that [they] have with information we obtain from business partners or other companies,” then go on to describe how they use that information to authenticate you, provide services, and more. But at no point do they specify what any of that personal data or information is, except for cookies later on down the page (note: I did later find a section under “access logs” that listed more detailed data, like IP address, OS, browser type, etc, but I stand by what I said because they buried this information in a place it’s not typically found). In cases like this, you’ll have to note phrases like “combining information about you.” They say this data is used for billing (among other things), so it’s likely in this case that they work with some sort of risk-management company to detect and flag potential fraudulent transactions, which means that probably don’t personally have access to your identity data, but they work with companies who do to confirm your billing identity. They also cite using the data to “improve services” and “research.” A quick look at uBlock Origin shows that the site does indeed use Google Analtyics, as most sites do to “improve their services.” Unfortunately, I don’t have a comprehensive list of PR-Speak words and what they mean in plain English. You just have to learn how to see these words and think like the company. “What sort of external business partners would they work with to verify my data? What information would that require? Who would have access to it?” It pays to have a healthy bit of paranoia in these cases. Needless to say, this data can be used for multiple purposes: your name and location can be used to verify your card details, but can also be used to sell you ads.

This brings us to the final thing I look at: how they use your data. Most companies have to comply with legal orders. Quite frankly, if you think a company won’t comply with legal orders, either you’re delusional, confused, or the company is catering specifically to criminals, in which case they will get shut down eventually. I wouldn’t use them lest you get caught in the crossfire. Some companies hand over data to law enforcement faster than others, but all of them will do it when given a legal, valid order. In my opinion, this is not concerning at all. (Reminder that this site does not focus on the “political activist in a repressive country” threat model. That’s a different story.)

Instead, I focus on things like ad partners. Some websites do flat out say that they share your data with advertisers. Others dress it up in pretty words like “trusted business partners.” Few – if any – admit to selling your data. They “share” it with “trusted business partners” whom they will not name or expand upon what the reason for and extent of this “sharing” includes. Make no mistake: in 90% of cases, that’s PR speak for “we sell your data to advertisers.”

In my opinion, this section is really the most important. You’ll be able to instantly see how fast and loose the company plays with your data. All of them will share with law enforcement – again, that doesn’t bother me. Most – if not all – also say they share some data with third-parties for the purposes of providing support (ex, ZenDesk) or improving the site (ex, Google Analytics). These also bother me very little because these can be easily blocked, lied to, or simply not used. But the ones who say “we share data with advertisers” or “trusted business partners” are the ones that I distrust. Another keyword to look for here is phrases like “improve your experience.” While this can sometimes refer to making the site better, it also frequently refers to targeted ads. This is especially obvious in phrases like “serving you more relevant content.” Once I know how comfortable the service is with sharing, then I compare that to the previous section of what they record. IP address and cookies? Not worried. Not much to share there between VPNs, Bleachbit, and clearing my cache regularly. Everything including the kitchen sink? Now I have to reconsider how much I want to use this service.

Things I Ignore (and Why)

I ignore basically everything else in the privacy policy. In some cases, this is because I simply don’t care. Some of it is obvious to me as an experienced internet user, stuff like “we contain links to other websites and are not responsible for what those sites contain.” Duh? Or “if we get bought by another company, all you data will be transferred to them.” Yeah, makes sense. I typically ignore “How We Secure Your Data.” It’s usually vague, and even if it’s not it rarely says anything useful. You can use SSL and 128-bit encryption all day long (both of which are outdated, btw) but unless my data is zero-knowledge it’ll be exposed the first time your salesperson falls for a phishing scam. I just don’t care.

Some of those, of course, are situational. In the case of a service promising end-to-end encryption, I want to know more about their encryption. What techniques and protocols are you using to ensure my data? Readers from the EU may wish to read the sections about “Your Rights in the EU.” I’m not a EU citizen, so these sections mean nothing to me. The only things I personally care about are what they collect and when they’ll share it.

The Rise of Plain-English Privacy Policies

Let’s go back real quick to the new chic startups who say “we don’t share anything, ever, period.” In my opinion, that’s just as misleading as MyNetDiary’s vague privacy policy because I don’t think any of these startups are going to resist a lawful court order for data. What companies consider a lawful order may vary. Proton claims they will only respect court orders that they legally have to: orders that come from Swiss police. If the FBI, RCMP, or any other agency asks for data, Proton tells them to go through the Swiss police or else they won’t even consider it. A smaller company may not have the resources to tell every single foreign agency to kick rocks, so they might consider any valid police order as reason enough. So when these companies say “we don’t share anything, ever, period,” the unspoken caveat there is “except when we have to,” and now I want to know more about that. It makes me wonder what else they’re not saying that they expect you to just know even though they never said it. “Obviously we use Google Analytics and tracking cookies, everyone does,” even though their policy didn’t say it.

For the record, it’s one thing to say “we won’t share anything cause we have nothing to share,” though usually even encrypted services will still say “we do have the last IP address you logged in from” or “we have your username on file” because they need to store this to maintain and authenticate your account or it’s technologically required to make the service work. I’ve actually seen multiple privacy-focused startups who’s privacy policy flat out says “we never collect or share anything” but if you scroll down you’ll eventually see “we share data with law enforcement if it’s a legal, valid order.” Whoops. Contradiction much? The point is that they need to be consistent, and if they aren’t being consistent, that’s a huge red flag for me. I’ve had a lot of back and forth with companies asking multiple questions about their privacy policies because they’re contradictory, which makes them even more confusing and potentially damaging to end users.

I respect the idea of a plain-English privacy policy, and I think more companies should use them. But I would beware of companies who take it too far in the other direction and make overly-broad claims about your safety, like “we never share data ever, end of story.” That’s blatantly untrue. These companies need to be more honest.

Conclusion

I know this post ran a bit long and was a bit all over the place. This, like many topics I cover, is complicated with no clear-cut, easy answers. No “do XYZ and you’re set.” But hopefully it helped to dispel some of the confusion and fear surrounding this topic. Again, privacy policies are not perfect. They are not the end-all, be-all. Companies lie, policies are written vaguely, and terms are misleading on purpose. But again, things will never be better than what’s painted in the policy. If a policy promises they collect and verify your social security number, you can guarantee things are at least that bad and decide accordingly if that’s a risk you’re willing to accept. It’s vital that people learn how to read a privacy policy so they can decide if that’s a minimum risk they want to accept. Always be cautious, but be smart.

You can find more recommended services and programs at TheNewOil.org. You can also get daily privacy news updates on Mastodon or support my work in a variety of ways here.

What is Voice-Over-IP (VoIP) and Why Do You Need It?

Voice-over-IP – or VoIP – is basically phone calls over the internet or cell data rather than via traditional phone technologies. The technology is far from new – it’s been used in business for decades – but it’s also available for consumers for a relatively low cost.

While VoIP does come with a few drawbacks – primarily the fact that your call quality depends heavily on your internet strength (via mobile data, for example), the benefits, in my opinion, cannot be overstated. In no particular order, VoIP can be used to compartmentalize your life, set healthy work/life boundaries, protect yourself from spam calls and robotexts, and protect your overall privacy. For example: if you have a VoIP number you use for work, you can disable that number each night when you get off the clock. You can also use a VoIP number for dating or selling things online, which prevents you from being stalked or harassed if things go south. There is no reason I can think of not to use VoIP of some kind if it’s available in your country.

MySudo is a popular VoIP app in the privacy community for iOS and Android that offers up to nine digital identities. I say “identities” because to say “phone numbers” is to discredit MySudo’s other features: an inbox, a web browser, and virtual cards.

Image Photo courtesy of MySudo

The Good

I think the most obvious advantage of MySudo is the number of identities you can have. Having so many different phone numbers at your disposal offers a lot of flexibility. I believe most people could get away with the MySudo Pro plan (three phone numbers with 200 messages and 200 minutes per month) depending on how many minutes you need. You could use these for work, personal, and other, and for most people that’s plenty. But as I said, the configurations are near infinite and can be whatever you need them to be. You could do a dedicated Signal number, shopping, burners, travel, really whatever your heart desires. Even if you can only afford the SudoGo plan (1 number, 100 messages & 30 minutes), that still reduces the odds of a SIM-swapping attack, so maybe you'd use that for all services that only offer SMS 2FA. It really largely depends on how many minutes you need and how much messaging you do, but there should be a plan that nearly anyone can make use of.

When contacting other MySudo users, you get the advantages of group messaging, end-to-end encryption, self-destructing messages, and even video chat. With non-users, you get SMS, MMS, and voice calling (no group chats or calls and no disappearing messages). You also have an email address for each identity that you can customize (ex, nbartram@sudomail.com) which are end-to-end encrypted for other MySudo users, and a web browser for each identity that claims to block third party ads and trackers. Each identity can also create masked virtual cards that you can use online to help prevent tracking and card theft. Unlike privacy.com, these cards are not linked to a single merchant but can be reused as many times as you want. Finally, MySudo claims that all your data is stored in a zero-knowledge format and that they don’t log your incoming and outgoing messages. So while your messages may not be end-to-end encrypted coming and going, they are safely free of MySudo’s prying eyes once they’re in your inbox.

The Bad

I am biased toward MySudo. I personally use it in my daily life and depend on it very heavily. Having said that, it’s not without drawbacks.

For starters, MySudo is heavily dependent on stock operating systems like Android and iOS. In order to get a paid plan, you have to go through either the App or Play Stores, but once you’ve done that you can move to a new device as long as the billing plan stays active. However, the actual usability of MySudo with custom ROMs seems to be hit or miss. While MySudo does offer direct downloads for both Graphene and Calyx, I’m also told it doesn’t work on Graphene OS at all. I’m unsure about other custom ROMs. Either way, this presents a challenge for those who wish to take their privacy to the max and truly get as Big Tech-free as possible.

MySudo is also an inconvenience for those who prefer to be as phone-free as possible in general. There’s a web app you can use on desktop, but it has to be synced up manually each time you use it, so I can’t just turn my phone off at the end of the work day or get rid of my phone entirely. Sure, I have most of my most important contacts on Signal, Matrix, or some other desktop-ready communication platform but I’m one of those people lucky enough to work a job that generally respects work/life balance. That means that when I get a late-night text, it’s usually kind of important, so I’d like to be able to have a desktop app where I can get this information in real time without depending on my phone.

Image Photo courtesy of MySudo

There’s also the issue of price, as always. There is a free tier, but it’s pretty useless since you can’t call or text non-Sudo users at all. As I said above, I think most people can do just fine with SudoPro, which is $5/month ($50/year) and gives you 300 messages per month and 200 minutes per month with non-Sudo users, as well as 3 virtual cards and 3 identities. However, I am a firm believer that privacy should not be a luxury and should be available to all. Obviously services like MySudo are not cheap to run and must be paid for somehow, but it still makes me sad that the free level is so restrictive. I always want to be considerate of people who truly are that tight on money. The virtual card feature costs money, too: 2.99% of the purchase price plus $0.31. Again, I understand that nothing is free, but I wonder why they can’t just take a cut off the back end like Privacy.com does.

Then there’s the concerns about the limitations of who can use MySudo: MySudo phone numbers are only available for US, UK, and Canadian phone numbers, and you can only sign up for a paid plan in the US, UK, or Canada (UK pricing is not listed on their site, which makes me wonder what other countries are available that we don't know about), while the virtual cards are only available for US users. The app is available for download in New Zealand, Singapore, and South Korea, though, but I guess at that point it would function like any other encrypted messenger, requiring both users to have the app, and at that point I would advocate for nearly any other encrypted messenger instead for that use case.

Finally, a word about MySudo's “other features” like email and web browsing: while they certainly are added value, I think they're pointless. Because MySudo lacks a strong desktop app, using the emails is clunky and annoying. The web browser claims to block ads and trackers, but has no publicly-visible list to check. There are other open-source browsers who do this just as easily like Brave, Bromite, or Mull (or hardened Safari). MySudo's real use is compartmentalization, therefore I see no reason to put all your eggs in one basket. I would still recommend an open source, trusted encrypted email provider and an open source, privacy-focused browser over MySudo's offerings. Therefore – again – while they are nifty features, they mostly collect dust in my use case. Likewise, I use privacy.com for virtual cards, which offers me significantly more options, better protections, and no fees. Given that virtual cards are only available in the US, I don't know why anyone would bother using MySudo over privacy.com (unless you don't trust privacy.com, and I'm not sure why you trust MySudo more in that case as they both require your personal information to comply with anti-money-laundering laws).

Conclusion

It’s important to remember that VoIP is not meant to a be a replacement for an end-to-end encrypted messenger. A lot of people bash on MySudo because it’s not open source or zero-knowledge, but in my opinion that’s missing the point. What VoIP is meant to be is a way to compartmentalize your life and protect you against data breaches, stalkers, and set healthy boundaries in your own life. In that sense, I personally have found MySudo to more than meet my needs and exceed. Due to the price, location restrictions, and operating system restrictions it may not be for everyone but I strongly encourage those who still use a stock iOS or Android and live in an area that MySudo services to look into it. It’s a powerful tool and it may come in extremely handy to have in your arsenal.

You can learn more and download MySudo here.

Updated on Oct 9, 2022 to reflect that a UK paid plan is available. Previously I was led to believe it was not.

You can find more recommended services and programs at TheNewOil.org. You can also get daily privacy news updates on Mastodon or support my work in a variety of ways here.

Times change. If you're reading this, well, you can read. And I'm willing to bet so can almost everyone else you know and work and associate with, and probably nearly every person you've ever met. In fact, for most people reading this, you've probably never met someone who can't read – excluding small children – and if you did, they were probably the only person you met in such a situation (exceptions, of course, for those who've traveled extensively in less privileged parts of the world). According to Wikipedia, the global literacy rate for all persons aged 15 and above is 86.3% as of 2015.

As most of us know, this wasn’t always the case. According to Our World in Data, the global literacy rate was only 12% in 1820. There were a lot of factors that contributed to the rise of literacy, but a driving force was the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840). Paper production technology improved and mass production of books became cheaper. At the same time, machines made work faster and easier, requiring fewer hands. Children could be sent off to school – where they would learn to read and write – while adults put out of work by machines (or who simply wanted better opportunities) had to learn new skills to compete for better jobs – skills like reading and writing. Fast forward two hundred years or so and here we are.

Times change, and they've changed again. These days, everything is digital. Not just our day-to-day lives, but our economy, our infrastructure, our pay, everything. Everything is digital. If the internet suddenly disappeared for any reason, it would be absolute global chaos on par with a nuclear holocaust. And thus, I argue, the bar has been raised.

Image Photo by Thomas Jensen on Unsplash

In the past, I’ve been “the family IT guy,” but also the work IT guy. I’ve shown coworkers how to organize their Excel spreadsheet entries alphabetically or numerically, I’ve gotten Bitwarden adopted into the workplace at a former day job where we were using abysmal passwords on all of our accounts, and I’ve helped friends and family recover data off old hard drives or remove malware from their computers. And maybe ten or twenty years ago, that was fine. But not anymore. It’s not okay anymore to not know that you can use a search engine to understand and resolve most error codes, to just accept the default settings on your device without verifying them, or to not know terms like “DNS” or understand the basics of encryption such as what a “key” is or what “hashing” is.

Before I get too far on my soapbox, let me state that I’m a reasonable person. I doubt that the wave of new readers in the 1800s were lining up to read and debate the finer philosophical themes of The Diving Comedy, Shakespeare, or The Odysee. I suspect (though I have not done my research) that the first mass-waves of the literate probably had only a functional level of literacy – enough to read public notices, warning signs at work, and the Bible. And likewise, I’m not for a second saying that it’s time for all of our grandparents and parents to rush out and learn how to self-host their own servers, learn to code and read cyptography, or learn how to compile a kernel from scratch. (It may surprised most of my readers that I only know how to do one of those things with any degree of confidence or competency, and even then I need heavy hand-holding).

What I am saying, however, is that it’s time to level up as a collective society. The bar has risen. When computers were new – a novelty, a toy that only a few nerds played with – it didn’t matter so much. It was about as important as where Captain Kirk was born or the context of why Chewbacca was part of the Rebellion. But that’s not the case anymore. Computers are no longer just hobbies or reserved for the wealthy corporations. You’re almost certainly reading this on one. Your economy depends on one, as does your job, your recreation, and your social network. In some way, the internet touches nearly every part of nearly everyone’s lives.

Image Captain James Tiberius Kirk was born in Riverside, Iowa. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

This is why it’s critical that our tech literacy rate go up collectively. We all wish for the good old days – even if it’s a misguided, nostalgia-fueled myth that we’ve blinded ourselves with via rose-colored glasses – but they’re not coming back. Pandora’s box has been opened, for good or bad. Re-using garbage passwords was fine twenty years ago. It’s not anymore. New threats come for all of us, whether it’s as benign as annoying spam or as serious as phishing, ransomware, and identity theft. They’re not going away any time soon, if ever. It’s no longer acceptable to flap your arms in frustration and go “I’m just not good with computers! Someone needs to help me!” Most of us, if we screwed up a set of instructions, wouldn’t cower behind the defense of “I’m just not good with words! Why didn’t the English guys come help me?” (Except maybe those with actual disabilities such as dyslexia.) Such an excuse would get you a look of “are you serious?” and possibly a prompt dismissal depending on how bad the screw up was.

Again, I’m not saying we all need to become cybersecurity experts, and I’m not suggesting it needs to happen overnight. I have no expectation that my mom will wake up tomorrow and know how to outfox the Equation Group. But I do expect that sometime soon, she’ll know what makes a good password and use strong, unique passwords across all her accounts with the help of a password manager. There are certain basic criteria for all areas of life: you don’t hit people, you don’t tell that dark joke at work, you know how to politely excuse yourself to use the restroom. It’s time that all of us accepted that the basic criteria for functioning in a digital world have been raised. It may be uncomfortable, maybe even difficult for some. But the bar is not going to lower any time soon. We can no longer cower behind fear of the unknown and intimidation of new things as an excuse to continue letting ourselves and those around us be unprotected. Times have changed, the bar has risen. We must all rise to meet it, and help those around us as needed.

You can find more recommended services and programs at TheNewOil.org. You can also get daily privacy news updates on Mastodon or support my work in a variety of ways here.

Disclosure: I have an affiliate link with ProtonVPN that gives me a small financial incentive if you sign up for a paid plan using it. You do not have to use this link, I provide a non-affiliate link at the end, and I tried my best to be unbiased in this review.

What is Proton VPN?

A VPN is a service that creates an encrypted tunnel between the device and the provider's server, protecting all your traffic from prying eyes along the way like your Internet Service Provider (ISP) or whoever owns the router (think public Wi-Fi, for example). After reaching the provider's server, your traffic continues on to your desired destination like normal. Proton is one such service, very popular in the privacy community because they offer a number of features as well as an entire ecosystem (which will, of course, be touched on here).

Why Do You Need a VPN?

You may not, to be honest. I recommend you check out IVPN's site “Do I Need a VPN?” here. A lot of people really hype VPNs as one of those absolutely, must-have, life-changing things that will solve all your problems. Some mainstream providers even make ridiculous, outright false claims like “it'll make you anonymous” or “it'll protect you from viruses.” In all honesty, while I do believe that VPNs are an essential piece of your privacy strategy, there are many other free or low-cost strategies that will give you significantly more protection. A VPN these days pretty much only has two purposes: changing your IP address and protecting your traffic from local snoops. Changing your IP address is a valuable part of avoiding tracking, but it’s just one way and a VPN won’t protect you against those other methods like browser fingerprinting, tracking pixels, cookies, and more. Likewise, while it can be great to protect your traffic from your ISP or a local cybercriminal, from a security perspective you’re already pretty well covered so long as you enable your browser’s HTTPS-Only mode and make sure you’re using the correct sites instead of spoofed/phishing sites. Having said all that, I do still consider a VPN to be a useful and recommended part of your privacy and security posture if you can afford one. It can bypass censorship, stop your ISP from selling your browsing data, help obscure your IP address from tracking and logging, and protect your traffic from certain attacks.

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Why Not Tor?

Some people prefer Tor over VPNs. Tor is a great service, but it also has some issues that make it the wrong tool for certain situations. For example, many essential services – like banks – block known Tor IP addresses to prevent fraud and abuse, making those services nearly impossible with Tor. Second, Tor loses almost – if not – all of its anonymity once you login to something. If you login to your email and then your Reddit account in the same session, they’re now tied to together and you’ve lost your anonymity benefit. For this reason, I recommend reputable VPNs for any services that are tied to your real identity or sensitive and Tor for random searches or accounts that are not tied to your real identity.

The Good

There's a reason Proton is a titan in the privacy community. Lots of them, actually. ProtonVPN is based in Switzerland – a country renowned for having strong privacy laws. They offer over 1,700 servers in 64 countries – including India, which they recently announced a workaround for so they could still serve Indian users without violating privacy or Indian law. Their apps are available on all operating systems and feature a very clean, modern look. They even offer a free tier to let you try out the service and see if you like it. All their apps are open source and they regularly do third-party audits.

ProtonVPN offers NetShield, a DNS-based ad/malware/tracker blocker. They offer tons of documentation for things like putting a VPN on your router or making use of various features. They offer unlimited bandwidth and even offer a “VPN Accelerator” tool that claims to ensure you're always getting the best speed possible. Proton offers tools like P2P servers, Tor-over-VPN, kill switches, I mean honestly, if you want it out of a VPN, Proton likely offers it. In fact, Proton is the only VPN we recommend at The New Oil who proudly guarantees that you can still stream services like Netflix and Hulu. (I can attest that this works very well.) They also allow you to use the IKEv2 protocol on their iOS app, meaning you can use ProtonVPN alongside a content blocker such as Lockdown or Blokada.

Proton goes a step further by offering a total ecosystem. Your Proton account doesn't just get you a VPN, it gets you email, calendar, and a cloud storage system. As I've mentioned in previous blog posts, sometimes the presence of apps on various operating systems can be inconsistent – for example, at the time of writing Drive is available as an Android app but not desktop or iOS – but still. The whole ecosystem is available and growing, and in the privacy community that's no small thing. Proton is increasingly becoming the all-in-one privacy alternative to services like Google and Apple that the average person wants – simple, elegant, and user friendly.

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The Bad

Don't get me wrong though, Proton is not a perfect service. Nothing is. For starters, right out the gate, their Linux app sucked. When I tried to download their VPN app, it simply didn't work. At first I thought this was my fault (I use Qubes as my Linux distribution of choice, so I'm used to running into extra challenges that most people don't), but when I tweeted them for help other users quickly confirmed this is not new or unique. Bummer. I appreciate Proton making privacy more accessible, but they seem to be only operating on a small window of skill. Once you advance past their target audience, time to move on.

I'm also incredibly disappointed that they don't support hardware tokens for two-factor authentication They do support TOTP, which is fantastic, but I'd like to see them offer more advanced security for those who need (or want) it. On the note of offering their users maximum privacy/security, their signup could be better. They don't accept Monero (but they do accept Bitcoin and cash) and new accounts require verification, either via a phone number, recovery email, or payment. That makes creating a truly anonymous account difficult – impossible, in practice, for the average user they seem to be targeting.

Finally, there are drawbacks to being the big guy. As I type this, I tried to do a Brave Search but was met with one of those “drag the slider to confirm you're not a robot” captchas. I gave up after ten and went to SearXNG. This unfortunately happens frequently, especially on mobile, but I never notice any such captchas with other VPN providers like Mullvad and IVPN. I can only assume that because they are the big guys with free servers they get abused a lot more, necessitating such measures.

Conclusion

Proton is a common VPN choice in the privacy community, with good reason. Between open source apps, great jurisdiction, and a mountain of features I really have few bad things to say about them (other than what I already noted above). They're a great choice if you're still looking for a VPN provider – especially if you're a big streamer – and the included ecosystem really cements why they're one of the top dogs in the privacy community. If you're in the market for a good VPN, you'd be remiss not to at least give Proton a glance. They're one of the more expensive options we recommend, but they're worth every penny in my opinion.

You can learn more and sign up for ProtonVPN here. If you want to support us when signing up, we have an affiliate link available here.

You can find more recommended services and programs at TheNewOil.org. You can also get daily privacy news updates on Mastodon or support my work in a variety of ways here.

In this review, I’ve decided to lump both Bitwarden and KeePass into the same review because of their vast similarities. However, there are some key differences that I will outline below. I don’t think of this blog as “Bitwarden vs KeePass.” In fact, I use both myself for different purposes. I hope that discussing this below will help you decide which is right for you, or if both are – like in my case – how to use them to their maximum potential.

A quick note, in this review I am using “KeePass” as a general term to refer to any KeePass client. Personally I use KeePassXC and therefore will base all my information on that experience, but the same general trends should hold true for other forks as well.

The Products

Bitwarden and KeePass are both password managers. A password manager is a critical piece of technology that I would argue is mandatory in today’s world, as they give a secure place to store your login (and other) information. This serves several purposes. The first and most obvious is account security. Modern cybersecurity advice says that passwords should be at least 8 characters (more, depending on who’s advice you listen to); contain a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters; and should not be reused anywhere. This makes the idea of remembering your passwords laughable – even those with the best memory would struggle after a few accounts, and less-used accounts would be quickly forgotten. A good password manager will help you adhere to best password practices and keep track of all your accounts with zero effort on your end. It is a commonly held piece of wisdom that if you know your passwords, they aren’t strong enough (with the exception of passphrases used to log into your password manager and devices). Password managers can also serve numerous other purposes like help preventing phishing and keeping track of other critical information like 2FA seeds, security answers, and more.

The Good

Bitwarden and KeePass both start off with a lot of positives in common, like being open source and free. Bitwarden has a premium tier we’ll get to later, but even their free tier should offer all the functionality an average user would need. Both allow unlimited entries, multiple devices, folders, and much more. Both also feature browser plugins, which can help prevent you from falling prey to a phishing attack. (This works because if you click a link and it’s not accurate, the plugin won’t offer to auto-fill your login details, tipping you off that something’s not right.) Bitwarden can also be self-hosted if you like the product itself but want a little more control over your data.

In terms of functionality, KeePass is the clear winner. Because KeePass is fully free in every sense of the word, there is no functionality hidden behind a paywall. You can add your 2FA seeds, unlock your password vault with a hardware token, and more.

In terms of look, Bitwarden outdoes KeePass by a long shot. KeePass works, but it’s not the prettiest program ever. Bitwarden, meanwhile, looks much more modern and sleek, and even has different entry types so you can easily store common information like names, credit cards, and notes. KeePass can technically be made to do all this stuff, but you’re really using a password entry while Bitwarden has these entries already modified to look right. For example, I store my emergency credit card information in Bitwarden in case I ever need it while I’m not home. In KeePass, this would require me to enter the credit card number in a field normally used for logins, like “Password,” “Username,” or maybe the “Notes” field if I want. While there’s no real issue with this, it does bug my perfectionist nature a little bit. In Bitwarden, there’s an actual credit card entry that has fields like “Cardholder Name” and “Number” and “Expiration.” Same with Notes, and Identity. (Pro Tip: you can use the “Identity” entries to keep track of your various disinformation identities, like how Nathan Bartram lives at 350 West Wolf Point Plaza in Chicago.) Bitwarden also automatically pulls login icons for websites, while KeePass must be made to do this. Admittedly, this is either a pro or a con depending on your threat model and preferences, which brings me to my next point.

Let’s get to the elephant in the room: cloud syncing. Depending on your threat model and/or level of caution, cloud syncing is either a pro or a con for you. If you have a low threat model and value convenience, Bitwarden is the clear winner here. They are cloud based, with apps on Android and iOS, as well as Mac, Windows, Linux, and the aforementioned browser extension. Bitwarden is password security on easy mode. If you don’t trust the cloud – or you don’t trust Bitwarden for whatever reason – KeePass is going to be the best choice for you. You can manually sync your vault between devices by either plugging them in and uploading them, or by using a cloud service like Nextcloud or Filen.

The Bad

Let’s start with KeePass’s drawbacks because I think there are fewer of them. The most obvious, I already noted, is the UI. However, there’s also the cloud sync and plethora of forks. Because KeePass is not cloud-based, it’s up to you to make sure that you’re keeping good backups in case your device ever dies, becomes corrupted, gets stolen, etc. I discuss this on the site, but it can never be overstated. Losing your passwords is hard to bounce back from. It can also be tedious syncing your database, even if you have a good system in place. At one point, I was keeping my database in a cloud folder so it would always sync up automatically, then using Strongbox/KeePassDX on my mobile devices. Even with this near-realtime-cloud setup, I would still have to routinely import the newest version of my vault into the mobile apps to ensure I had the latest entries, and I would also have to be careful not to save over them. And on that note, KeePass is mostly a community-driven project in that sense that there is no universal KeePass client that works everywhere. KeePassXC is the closest you’ll get, as it works on Linux, Mac, and Windows, but for mobile you’ll need to find another client such as Strongbox for iOS or KeePassDX for Android. It’s definitely not as smooth and seamless of an experience. KeePass also doesn’t come with any sort of automatic sharing features like Bitwarden. If I wanted to share a login with someone, I’d have to export it somehow and send it to them over a secure channel.

Now let’s talk about Bitwarden. I’ll start by addressing the cloud part, since that’s a double-edged sword. Bitwarden is cloud-based. If you value convenience, this is great. But it also comes with some risks. For example, since Bitwarden is centralized, that means if they ever suffer a data breach, your vault could be at risk since they store it for you. Now just to be clear, if Bitwarden is encrypting your vault properly – and personally believe they are – then you have nothing to fear in the event of this happening. Still, it’s a very unsettling thought. Your vault has the keys to your entire digital life – which could include things like bank logins, logins for sensitive accounts and communications, and more. Even if it is practically unhackable, I still wouldn’t exactly be comfortable handing out a copy of that to just anyone. And of course, again, this is predicated on the assumption that they’ve implemented their encryption correctly. Bitwarden is very popular, meaning a lot of experts have no doubt laid eyes on the code, and they’ve even been audited, but all it takes is one slip up to create a vulnerability. It’s a lot of trust you’re placing in someone.

On that note, let me address a complaint I’ve seen float around a few times: there’s allegations that Bitwarden’s website is not properly protected against a possible malicious Javascript hijacking, which could allow an attacker to steal your login credentials. This is concerning, for sure, because as the end user you’d really have no way of knowing. However, in my experience, people love apps. I suspect that most people who use Bitwarden won’t be using the website except to make serious changes to their account like buying a premium plan or changing their password. I know that’s my use case. This seriously reduces the risk of this attack, and between that fact and my belief that the gains from using a password manager outweigh the risks in this usage model, I would still strongly encourage people who are considering Bitwarden to go ahead and use it. I preach Bitwarden to everyone I know without reservation, and as far as I know nobody I’ve convinced to use it uses the website. They all download the app and the browser plugin. Having said that, if you’re reading this and you work for Bitwarden, I strongly urge you to consider addressing this attack. It’s only a matter of time before it gets abused, and when you does you guys are gonna look pretty stupid for brushing it off all these years. Surely you can afford it now.

Finally, I should address that some of Bitwarden’s features are premium only. As I said earlier, the core functionality of Bitwarden is free – unlimited entries, unlimited devices, etc – and there’s really no reason that this shouldn’t work just fine for the vast majority of people. However, there are some paid features that would either increase user security or make life a lot easier for users. For example, being able to lock your vault with a hardware token is a paid feature. Such a feature increases your vault security exponentially. Another paid feature is the ability to store your 2FA seeds in your password vault. While this is potentially risky as it creates a single point of failure, it also makes using 2FA nearly effortless, and it’s something I would encourage if it’ll make the user more likely to use 2FA (assuming they also have a strong vault passphrase and 2FA enabled on the vault, too, for maximum protection). It’s a bummer to see such powerful features locked behind a paywall, but I suppose it’s somewhat fair. TOTP 2FA (the kind where you get a new code every thirty seconds) is still supported on the free account, and Bitwarden has to make money somehow, and also you could always just self-host it if you really want those features for “free” (in quotations because we’re not counting the cost of the server/VPS, time spent, etc). Again, the important functionalities are free, and that’s what matters.

As a last note, it should be noted that Bitwarden offers an emergency access feature. I can set another Bitwarden user – like my spouse – to be the emergency contact. If she requests access and I don’t respond within a certain time frame (I think it’s 7 days), she’ll automatically be given access to my vault. This is to ensure that if anything happens to me, she’ll be able to login to stuff like the bank, my email, and whatever other accounts she needs to handle our affairs. KeePass, being offline, does not offer such a feature. In either case, I encourage you to think about this kind of stuff and have a plan in place should the worst happen. I discussed this more in my blog post here.

Final Verdict

As I said above, I use both password managers. For those curious, here’s a quick explanation of how I do it (quick piece of context: I dualboot both Linux and Windows. I use Windows for gaming and for producing videos and music): I use KeePassXC for all of my passwords, even the ones I also have in Bitwarden. This is the vault I export regularly as part of my routine backup schedule. Anything that I need to access on a different device – like Windows or mobile – or anything that I need to share with my wife, I put in Bitwarden. So for example, my Discord and Matrix logins are saved in both KeePassXC and Bitwarden, because I like being logged into my communities on Windows so that I can keep an eye on them and respond if necessary even when I’m doing stuff on Windows. I also have things like Proton in there so I can access Drive or my email when on Windows to transfer files between my two OS’s easily. Then there’s the stuff I share with my wife, like the electric company login, the emergency credit card, and Netflix. Bitwarden makes it easy to sync logins between operating systems and to share them, but for the extra sensitive stuff like bank logins or accounts I don’t need immediate 24/7 access to, there’s always KeePass, where I can ensure more control over my vault and more easily integrate the backups into my workflow (for the record, Bitwarden does backups just as easily as KeePass, KeePass just works better for my personal workflow). I trust Bitwarden, but personally I also err on the side of “why take unecessary risks?” If I don’t need regular, sudden access to the account, then I prefer to keep it offline just in case. But that’s just me.

In the end, I believe that both password managers are excellent choices, and really the deciding factor is your preferences. If you prefer not to trust the cloud, you have good backup procedures in place, and you don’t mind some inconvenience when it comes to syncing your passwords across devices or sharing them with others, KeePass is the clear winner for you. If you want something easy that looks sharp and syncs across devices with no effort on your end but also has a strong reputation and good security, Bitwarden is the right choice. Regardless of which one you pick, I hope I’ve helped lay out the differences of each and helped make the choice a little bit easier for you. Remember to keep your vault secure. Password managers are game changers in making your digital life safer and more convenient, but they’re also putting all your eggs in one basket if you don’t take securing them seriously. With that said, be sure to check out these two password managers if you still haven’t adopted one yet.

You can check out Bitwarden here and KeePass here.

You can find more recommended services and programs at TheNewOil.org. You can also get daily privacy news updates on Mastodon or support my work in a variety of ways here.

Privacy can be overwhelming. It seems like every company out there is intent on collecting as much data as possible. For example, this morning I noticed that GasBuddy – the app that helps you find the cheapest gas for your car – wants permissions to access your Apple Health fitness data. Because apparently I plan to run to the gas station and carry the fuel back to my car, I guess? On top of that, we’re routinely subject to companies flat-out lying about their data collection and use policies – like when Twitter claimed they’ll only use your phone number for 2FA (spoiler alert: they used it for advertising) or when TikTok claimed they don’t send user data to China (spoiler alert: that was also a lie). And it’s only getting worse.

It’s for that reason (that privacy can be overwhelming at times) that I strongly emphasize a focus on mental health. The surveillance state wasn’t built in a day, and odds are that the mistakes you made in feeding data into it didn’t happen all at once either. It’s going to take time to climb back out of that hole, to erase any data you want to and find the right tools and techniques to protect yourself going forward. One technique I strongly preach to help manage the deluge of options and rabbit holes to study is to take it step by step. I also strongly encourage people to focus on yourselves. I’m not sure I’ve ever publicly issued this statement before except in response to forum posts and the like – such as the infamous “I can’t get my family to switch to Signal” (I’ve address that specific one before) – but this is one of those “more art than science” delicate balances we each have to find in our own lives. There’s nothing wrong with asking friends and family to use things like Signal or ProtonMail to contact you – maybe even offer to help get them set up with it – but at the end of the day we can’t force them to do anything. You may have heard the popular “Serenity Prayer”: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Good words to live by in almost any area of life.

Unfortunately, accepting that we are not in control of the actions of others (unless you’re in some sort of BDSM power dynamic) means that we are frequently faced with a choice: to accept it, or to walk away. (Technically “fighting it” is also an option, but I’m assuming you already did that in the form of asking people to make a certain privacy-oriented change, and if you push the issue too hard you end up pushing people away, ultimately resulting in the “walk away” option being chosen for you.) The real friction arises here when we realize that nothing happens in a vacuum. I strongly believe that everything is intersectional and causal. In other words: I don’t believe anyone just wakes up and does anything without reason, and in nearly every situation, whatever they do impacts someone else. Those impacts may be positive or they may be negative, but they’re still impacting someone somewhere to some degree.

And this brings us to privacy: when the people around you refuse to use encrypted messaging, or choose to use social media, or pretty much any other privacy-adjacent choice is made by them, this impacts you. Here’s an easy example: if someone you know downloads TrueCaller (or a similar robocaller-blocking app), your name and number will get caught up in that database without your consent. If my mom refuses to use Signal, I have two choices: I can accept that and text her anyways using insecure SMS, or I can simply stop talking to her. Now for the record, I am a huge believer that “family” is an overrated concept – the fact that you share some DNA with a group of people due to complete coincidence that was beyond your control or choice does not give those people the right to take advantage of you. If someone’s a toxic person who doesn’t belong in your life, you should cut them out like the malignant tumor they are regardless if they’re family, coworker, or other. But that’s not privacy related, that’s just called self-respect and knowing your worth. In my case, my mom is not a toxic person. She’s supportive, caring, and enriches my life by being part of it. So I don’t want to stop talking to her. But her choices are impacting my privacy. Her refusal to use Signal is leaving some of my communications exposed.

For the record, my mother is actually a consistent Signal user, she even got some of my other family members on it without me being involved. This was just a thought experiment. But these are the kinds of real choices we will all face as we try to protect our privacy in this world. And the extent of these risks vary. Most of the privacy enthusiasts I meet – likely including you reading this – generally have pretty good practices. We use strong passwords, we 2FA everything we can, we encrypt every text and email we can as well as our devices, we’re mindful of what we post and what we put online. Most of the people I talk to are either in a good spot or are on the way to getting where they want to be. Which is great! But you’re only as strong as your weakest link, and for many of us that means our family members. In some cases, this weakness may be trivial: maybe your boss doesn’t use Signal, but you guys pretty much only ever text to say “hey the meeting tomorrow got rescheduled for Friday” and other non-sensitive stuff like that. In more extreme cases, maybe your parents are posting pictures of your kids on Facebook despite you expressing your wishes that they wouldn’t. That’s a lot bigger of a problem, in my opinion.

This is one of my more “philosophical” posts in that I won’t be leaving you with any specific recommendations. That’s because the exact nature of your threat varies, as well as your threat model. I’m very fortunate. Last time my mother visited, she didn’t just visit me, she visited a lot of other family and friends in the state. Later when she sent the pics to the rest of the family, she explicitly wrote in her email “please don’t upload any pictures with Nate to Facebook or any other sites.” I didn’t even ask, I had no idea she was going to send photos to people. I’m lucky to have people in my life who respect my craziness, even if they don’t understand it or don’t care as much as I do. But I’m the exception. I’ve heard lots of people say things like “my parents uploaded pictures of my kids even though I explicitly asked them not to.” That’s rough. On the one hand, that’s a blatant disrespect for your wishes. But on the other hand, maybe they’re not actually “toxic” people and you don’t want to cut them off from their grandkids. These are choices you have to weigh. First off, what is your threat model? A lot of people – in my experience – don’t start there often enough. They seem to go straight to “this is a problem, how can I fix it?” Is it though? Maybe it is. Maybe you don’t want your kid’s face on Meta’s servers for the rest of eternity. That’s fair. If I had kids, I wouldn’t either. But as with any privacy hiccup, the threat model is a good place to start: “is this really an actual problem?” If it is, maybe you have to do the hard thing and say “you can’t take pictures of the kids at all anymore.” If it’s not that big of a deal – more of a preference – maybe a serious talk is in order. Or maybe some sort of compromise, like “you can upload pics but only if their face is obscured.”

This is all a hypothetical scenario for me, but I’m sure it’s not for many of the parents reading this. I’m sure you’ve all at one point or another had to sit down and explain to your family why you don’t want to post pictures of the kids on FB, or why you’ll only send pics via Signal or Proton or something like that (sorry I’m shilling those two so hard today, just using them as shorthand for “secure services”). There’s no easy answers here. Again, if someone’s toxic and only bringing negativity into your life, just cut them out. That’s a pretty straightforward, easy answer in my opinion. It may cause a drama storm, but eventually the storm will pass and your life will be better off for it. But if it’s someone you love who’s causing these vulnerabilities out of ignorance rather than malice, it’s a tough line to walk. Maybe you’ll need to be firm. “If you don’t start using Signal, I won’t reply to your texts.” Maybe you need to frame the problem in a way they’ll understand. “Hey, you know how the internet is a dangerous place and we want to keep the kids safe, right? That’s why I want you to keep pictures of the kids off social media.” There’s no easy answers here. But my goal was not to provide answers, instead it was to bring to your attention a weakness in our defenses that frequently doesn’t get properly addressed. These may not be pleasant conversations to have, but if you want to put yourself in the best privacy and security position possible, they need to happen.

Before I go, I want to reiterate two things. First off, your mental health matters. Do not cut off loving, supportive, well-meaning family members if your threat model doesn’t call for it. Second, and related, be sure to threat model. One mistake doesn’t mean you need to go nuclear, burn down the house, and move the family into witness protection (not for most of us, at any rate). Be patient with your loved ones if they’re trying, but be firm with your boundaries. Boundaries are really important, and people should respect them. Make them clear. I hope this has helped spark some thoughts.

You can find more recommended services and programs at TheNewOil.org. You can also get daily privacy news updates on Mastodon or support my work in a variety of ways here.

What is Threema & Why Do You Need It?

Threema is an end-to-end encrypted messenger available on Android, and iOS. Linux, Mac, Windows, and web clients also exist, but you’ll have to create an account on mobile first before connecting them (like Signal). I have long touted the need for E2EE in your daily communications for both practical and philosophical reasons. For practical reasons, it can protect sensitive communications like financial discussions, upcoming plans, and NSFW pics/texts if that’s your thing. For philosophical reasons, I think that everyone should use encryption whenever possible to normalize it and make mass surveillance less feasible/practical/economical.

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The Good

Threema has a lot of strong attributes to like. Starting at the top, the company is based in Switzerland, which is well known for having strong consumer data privacy laws. They follow this up by having been audited by Cure53 – a well-reputed security company with a history of audits like this. Finally, Threema offers a lot to their users in the way of privacy and anonymity. You can sign up without ever entering any personal information, like a phone number or username. Instead, they assign you a randomly-generated username – a short, easy-to-share one, unlike some other messengers which can be just as easily shared as a QR code. You can also pay for a license via the website, using a masked payment option (such as a privacy.com card or a prepaid gift card) and an alias or masked email address for near total anonymity.

The online payment option is particularly valuable for people with De-Googled devices, and on that topic Threema has been a champion of open source and free software ever since they open sourced their code in late 2020. Some of their recent privacy-first moves include things like trying to raise awareness for data privacy week, running an ice cream truck where they asked people to pay with their data to point out how invasive and ridiculous it is, and moving away from Google services for push notifications on Android, which later evolved into Threema Libre, a fully open-source version that does not have any proprietary dependencies and can be downloaded via F-Droid (or a similar front-end like Neo Store). It should be noted, this is the version I tested for this review.

On that note, from an end-user perspective, Threema worked very well. Signing up – even with a key purchased from the site – was a pretty straightforward process. Certainly not as “insultingly easy” as something like Signal or Session, but also nothing out of the ordinary that would be confusing to anyone who’s ever signed up for another service like email or social media. Adding people was pretty straightforward: just go to “Start a Chat” then click “New contact” and either paste their username or scan the QR code. Syncing to the desktop was similar to Signal in that you scan a QR code, except that you have to also enter your password for persistence, and every time you start the desktop app you have to enable the session on your mobile device so that’s a little annoying. Messages sent and arrived quickly with no issues, and voice chats were received with perfect, impressive clarity. I unfortunately didn’t make any time for voice or video calls, but based on my other experiences I assume they would’ve worked with perfect clarity and reliability.

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The Bad

As with every service, Threema is not without flaws. The most prominent of these is that Threema is not financially free. The fee to use the service is one time, and it is only about $5, but not everyone has $5 to spare and some people aren’t willing to pay for a messenger even if they do have it, thanks to years of getting things for free (as well the availability of options like Signal, which are more secure – more on that next – and still free). Threema accurately argues that you’re always paying somewhere – if not with cash then with data – but this can still be a hard pill to swallow for some.

More importantly, Threema’s security is not on par with Signal’s. Now regarding this particular post I just shared, I want to make two notes. First, it’s nearly a year old. I would hope Threema has fixed any serious issues by now. I did reach out to them asking them about this post and they dismissed the criticisms as “valid but well-known and non-essential,” saying they were “based on misconception or not relevant in regards to Threema’s practical use case.” In other words: the people at Threema disagree that these are security vulnerabilities at all on the grounds that it’s either a misunderstanding of how Threema works, or it’s not within the scope of problems Threema is aimed at solving. That brings me to my second point: I want it to be noted that I personally have some issues with this post. I really don’t want to get into it too much and derail the review, but the short version is “I think it’s obvious the author went into this research with some kind of bias.” That’s not me trying to attack them, for the record. I know nothing about this author or the work they do. I just wanted to say that in case anyone else reads that post and notices the same things I did. Having said that, I have no reason to suspect that the conclusions and findings were fabricated or invalid. Does this make Threema not worth using? Not in my opinion. But I do think it’s worth knowing the shortcomings of a messenger. Between the article itself and Threema’s rebuttal, I personally land on the belief that Threema’s security is probably fine for general, day-to-day talk with family and friends. Would I trust it if I were Edward Snowden fleeing the CIA? Probably not. Asking my wife if she needs me to grab anything from the grocery store? Sure.

There are some other downsides beyond questionable cryptographic choices, some of which may be more impactful for daily users. For one, Threema is centralized. We’ve seen this become a problem in the past with other messengers like WhatsApp and Signal, both of whom have had outages. That’s really the main concern with centralized messengers, in my opinion, is risk of an outage for one reason or another. But theoretically there can also be risks of censorship and compromise, depending on the app in question.

The aforementioned audit is also getting pretty old, having last been done in October 2020. At the time of publication, that’s nearly two years old. A lot can change in the digital landscape in just two years. Finally, Threema offers no form of multifactor authentication. The only thing standing between your account and an attacker who wishes to take over your account and pose as you is your password. We can only hope all their users are using good password practices and that Threema is storing those passswords with a strong hashing algorithm.

Conclusion

There are lots of options out there for encrypted messaging these days. Threema has long been a popular option, and it’s got some features worth considering: usernames, audits, strong jurisdiction, and a responsive and pleasant user experience. Getting your friends and family to fork over the $5 may be a challenge, but if they are willing to do so, Threema certainly doesn’t seem like the worst choice you can make when it comes to picking a private messenger. If some of the other popular recommendations – like Signal, Session, or Matrix – aren’t right for you, Threema would be worth checking out.

You can check out Threema here.

You can find more recommended services and programs at TheNewOil.org. You can also get daily privacy news updates on Mastodon or support my work in a variety of ways here.

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