Cool Privacy & Security Toys for Father’s Day
I apologize. Last month for Mother’s Day I wrote “Mom’s Guide to Online Child Safety,” a post meant to capitalize on the holiday (as I often do). This of course meant that in order to be equal, I had to do something for Father’s Day. While fathers of course love their children just as much as mothers do, I had already done that topic. So instead my mind went straight into the cliché of “cool toys for dad.” I’m sorry. I hate the stereotype of of the manly dad who tinkers with tech and power tools and all that crap while mom just makes breakfast and cleans. Women can be techy, too. Nonbinary people can be techy. (And men can cook and clean.) I’ve met girls who know more about tech than I’ll ever forget. All that to say: I apologize for perpetuating stereotypes and gender roles. Gender roles suck and they’re dumb. Moms can enjoy these items as much as dads. I’m sorry for not thinking ahead and playing into the stereotypes. Having said that, I still think this is a cool blog idea worth sharing, so I’m gonna lean into it.
As my long-time readers probably already know, I don’t believe that privacy is an app, product, or service. I think privacy is a lifestyle. It’s about making decisions that protect your data, like “I want to protect my messages” or “I’m going to pay in cash.” It’s not about the app: it’s about the reason for using the app and how you execute the usage. Having said that, apps are fun. Toys are fun. Gadgets are fun. And they’re not always mutually exclusive. There are plenty of apps, toys, gadgets, gizmos, whosits, whatsits, kerjiggers and more that can help enhance your privacy and/or security. Here’s a few such toys that aren’t necessarily “must haves,” but they’re cool and fun and can take your journey to the next level. Many of them will require some work to set up, but if you like a challenge, consider these for your next purchase or gift. As usual, these are in no particular order.
Flashing a Custom OS
Most of our lives are dominated by two or three choices of operating system: Mac or Windows, iPhone or Android. But almost all of your electronic devices can actually be modified with custom, open-source operating systems (OS’s) that open up a world of privacy, security, and new features. I will list these in order of easiest to hardest based on my experience.
Unless you use highly specialized software, Linux can do everything that a mainstream OS can do: save and open pictures, save and open movies, access the web for streaming, emailing, word processing, you name it. For most people, I recommend Debian as it has the easiest support for common programs like Discord, Slack, and gaming. However, Fedora does offer better security, so if you’re feeling up to the challenge, definitely look into that. It should still be able to support all the common programs, but it may require a little more work. (Even if you do use specialized software, I encourage you to consider dual-booting. I'll discuss that another day.)
There are a few variations of Linux available for various routers. My personal favorite is DD-WRT. According to my research, it has the most support both from the community and the number of routers it can work with. DD-WRT can take even a relatively inexpensive home router and turn it into a pretty powerful enterprise-grade router with pages upon pages of settings and features. You can create a powerful firewall, segment your whole network into VLANs, load up a VPN to cover the network (or certain parts of it), and much more. I’ve had mine since Christmas and I’m honestly still learning my way around it. This should keep you occupied for a while unless you have an extensive background in networking.
This is the holy grail of privacy for many. Putting a custom ROM on your phone will remove all the tracking from companies like Apple and Google (unless of course you choose to download their apps afterward) and will remove the “bloatware” of preinstalled apps. My recommended ROM is Calyx OS, which offers a blend of high security and usability. Keep in mind that this won’t make your phone untrackable – your cell carrier will still track your phone via location data – but it will reduce the amount of tracking and telemetry by A LOT.
Honorable Mention: Pine64 Devices
If you like the idea of de-Googled/de-Appled devices but want something a little less risky or involved, consider Pine 64 devices. Pine64 sells the PinePhone, PineBook, PineTab, and PineTime for a complete Linux ecosystem replacement for your current smart devices. As an added bonus, there are several community-driven projects that cater specifically to Pine64, meaning that if one operating system isn’t your cup of tea, there’s about half a dozen others to choose from. And they’re all made specifically for Pine64 devices, so they’re almost guaranteed to work and if they don’t, there’s a thriving community ready to help.
Hardware 2FA Tokens
If you’re ready to take your account security to the max and you don’t mind tinkering a bit with configuration, hardware keys are top of the line. You may be familiar with the brand Yubikey, but there’s also three open source options called OnlyKey Nitrokey and SoloKey. These will take some work to set up, and I always recommend buying them in pairs to keep the second as a backup (configured, of course), but once you have these configured your accounts will be about as secure as you can possibly make them. In fact, this is one way that Google has managed to avoid any major data breaches in all their years: all employees are required to use a Yubikey on company accounts. You can even program your computer to require a hardware key to unlock for the ultimate in device security (and with the OnlyKey, you can do considerably more than with a typical hardware key). You can’t get much more secure than this.
This one is fun. For anywhere between $35 – $100, you can get a microcomputer known as a Raspberry Pi. “What does it do?” you may ask, to which I would reply with “what do you want it to do?” Raspberry Pis are designed to be full-featured computers – they won’t do any video editing or gaming or anything super hardcore like that, but they can do just about anything else a regular computer can do. Do you want your own custom DNS for maximum ad and tracker blocking? Raspberry Pi. Want to self-host your own Nextcloud, Matrix, XMPP, Mastodon, PeerTube, etc instance? Raspberry Pi. Maybe a travel router? Raspberry Pi. If a computer can do it, so can a Raspberry Pi, and the possibilities are limited only to your imagination. This is is a MUST consider device for any tinkerer, especially those who want more control over their home network or are interested in self hosting.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Whatever particular part of technology interests you, I encourage you to go out looking for privacy-respecting and open-source alternatives and sink your energy into that. In fact, you may find that a project already exists but needs some help improving and that’s where you can come in. We can all make the world a better place in terms of privacy and security, sometimes just by using these projects instead of their Big Tech counterparts, and sometimes by actively contributing to them. Whatever role you choose to play in that world, I encourage you to go looking. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you find.