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Conspiracy Theory

Protecting your privacy can be hard but you’d be a fool not to do it

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Blocking the 'Big Five' tech giants

Earlier this month, I read an interesting article on Gizmodo detailing a self-proclaimed “privacy pragmatist’s” week-long experiment to see if it’s possible to stay connected in today’s world without going through Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, or Microsoft; the unholy pentad of our tech-driven society. The writer, Kashmir Hill, spent five weeks with one of the five corporations being completely blocked each week. The sixth week was the grand finale of the experiment, which she spent with all five being blocked at once. And this didn’t just prevent her from using these company’s products either, it also prevented her from using third-party products that relied on any of the five corporation’s services to function properly. This meant things like Hulu, Netflix, and Spotify were out of the picture, as well as anything else that utilizes Amazon, Google, or Microsoft’s cloud computing services, which is a staggeringly large chunk of the Internet.

As I’m sure you can imagine, it wasn’t a pleasant experience.

Hill summed it up quite succinctly in the title of the article itself: “It Was Hell.” What used to be so easy it barely required thought became virtually impossible during the experiment, with long trial-and-error sessions being a regular occurrence that didn’t always end with a solution being found. The few alternative products she was able to utilize either offered a vastly inferior experience or required jumping through so many hoops that it was borderline comedic, and occasionally both. In many instances, her only course of action was to abandon digital products all together in favor of their physical counterparts, like paper books instead of Kindle and paper maps instead of Google Maps. Even communication became a chore because most email and messaging services are either operated by or rely on one of the five corporations.

The Painful Truth of Trying to Protect Your Privacy

I actually empathize with Hill’s struggle quite a bit. While I’m too much of a tech enthusiast to live the “digital vegan” lifestyle and too reliant on companies like Google and Microsoft for work to live out Hill’s experiment, I’m still an intensely private person who doesn’t want corporations and governments spying on them. I used to go to some ridiculous lengths to protect my privacy, to the point where a significant portion of my day was spent dealing with the countless inconveniences that come with living as strict a privacy-aware lifestyle as I was. Not a week went by without me having to find a cumbersome workaround so that I could perform a basic action like get a ride through Lyft or watch HBO Go. It was tedious as all hell.

I finally started to take it down a few notches when I accepted the fact that there’s nothing I can do, short of forgoing the use of technology entirely, that will truly protect me, and that most of my effort is superfluous. All the effort in the world to protect my privacy means nothing when I just invalidate it by having a Google account or using a smartphone or any of the other inherently anti-privacy things I do. I wouldn’t say my efforts were little more than placebos, but without going all the way with protecting my privacy, I still wasn’t nearly as private as I needed to be to justify my sacrifices I was making.

If most people are at the bottom of the deep end of the pool, completely submerged in that hyper-connected world where privacy is impossible, I was in the middle of the pool standing on my tippy toes and just barely keeping my head above water. I’m still in roughly that same position now, but I’m expending significantly less effort to be there. I’ve found a sort of privacy/technology equilibrium that, while certainly not ideal, is about as comfortable a balance as I can achieve with the state the technology world is currently in. It’s frustrating, even infuriating, but I’ll take what I can get at this point and just pray that things improve with time.

The Path to True Privacy Will be Hard, but Worth the Effort

I don’t tell you all this to discourage you from taking steps to protect your own privacy; quite the opposite, in fact. Barely being able to keep my head above water isn’t an excuse to give up and sink to the bottom, it’s a sign that I need to try harder to stay afloat and, maybe some day, get out of the pool entirely. That doesn’t mean I hope to one day forgo the use of connected technology, it means that I want to help create a world where I can enjoy the innumerable benefits of such technology without having to sacrifice my privacy.

That world is well within our reach, we just need to prove to our democratic government that we won’t tolerate our privacy being taken away from us. We can do this by supporting organizations that fight for our Fourth Amendment rights in the Digital Age, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and stop supporting politicians who try to infringe on those rights. As for tech companies, we need to signal to the free market that there’s a massive demand for privacy-friendly alternatives to the products offered by tech companies like Facebook and Google. We can do this by supporting the companies that already do this, like DuckDuckGo and ProtonMail or, better yet, create products of our own that meet that demand.

The Other Benefits of Protecting Your Privacy

Living a more privacy-aware lifestyle also has far more benefits to it than you’d think. For starters, many of the measures you should take to protect your privacy also protect your security. The time we live in is essentially the Golden Age of Hacking with countless of Americans being victims of cybercrime each year and massive data breaches being almost commonplace. What’s worse is that many of these attacks are being conducted by state-sponsored organizations working for our enemies. These enemies, mainly China and Russia, are themselves investing heavily into their cyberwarfare capabilities in order to prepare for a potential cyberwar in the future that we might not be able to win. By shielding your personal information from the prying eyes of corporations and governments, you’re also shielding it from hackers and other malicious entities.

If you’re even remotely concerned about your privacy and security online, and you’d be a fool not be, you need to get yourself a good VPN. There are countless products and services I could recommend to protect yourself online but if I only had to choose one, it would be a VPN. I’ve used IPVanish, NordVPN, and Private Internet Access in the past, and while all of them are excellent, I eventually settled on ExpressVPN as my go-to service. It doesn’t log your traffic and isn’t based in the United States, both of which are essential if you’re worried about government surveillance, and it’s torrent-friendly, which is important if you’re an inveterate and unabashed pirate like myself. I love their service enough that I personally sought them out as a potential partner, to which they agreed. I’m happy to say that you can now protect your privacy and security online while also supporting NOQ Report by using this link to purchase an ExpressVPN subscription. Seriously, browsing the Internet in today’s world without a VPN is like walking through a dirty crack house with no clothes or shoes.

A properly configured Firefox browser also goes a long way to not just making your web browsing more private and secure, but removing so much of the bloat from websites that you may not even know is there until it’s gone. The web is so much cleaner and faster with a properly configured browser that I can’t fathom returning to the vanilla web browsing experience. And yes, I do recognize the irony of blocking advertisements and trackers on websites, which serve as their main source of revenue, when I myself work for a website that’s barely able to operate month-to-month with its meager revenue. However, it was our distaste for advertisements and trackers in general that, in large part, motivated JD and I to remove them from NOQ Report in favor of just affiliate programs and user donations (please donate).

You see, even though you can’t be 100% free from data collection and spying while connected, there are still plenty of benefits to living a privacy-aware lifestyle. I genuinely believe that you would have to be a fool not to take at least some measures to protect yourself, like using a VPN, and even a fairly small step forward like that can improve your digital well-being immensely. And if enough people stop being so passive when it comes to corporations and governments spying on us or refusing to take cybersecurity as seriously as they should, we may be able to prevent the digital dystopia that our country is currently sprinting towards.

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Conspiracy Theory

Is technology making it feel like time is speeding up?

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Is technology making it feel like time is speeding up

Some of the things they put out at Truthstream Media are extremely compelling. Then there are times when their videos are a bit blah. This is one of those times, but don’t be discouraged. There’s actually some pretty interesting information to glean from all of this.

Time does seem to be getting faster, or at least passing faster. Most attribute it to age. Some have speculated about the changing speed of light which scientists have demonstrated is getting slower. Since time, space, and light are all relative to each other, a slowing speed of light would actually make us feel like time is getting faster. But the notion that Truthstream Media latched onto is both the real likely cause as well as an interesting bit of information in and of itself.

Our attention spans are dropping thanks the prevalence of information and media in our lives. When once it could take hours just to download a television show, today we can stream movies without interruption on our smartphones. We’re able to bounce around from website to website, app to app, all in our search for the next stimulation, the next dopamine hit.

Since we’re able to get information more quickly, is that the reason our attention spans are growing shorter? Is that also the reason time seems to be moving faster? Know knows. It’s a decent video, albeit not their best.

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Conspiracy Theory

Endless Mayfly: Iran’s disinformation wing that attacked America, Israel, and Saudi Arabia online

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Endless Mayfly Irans disinformation wing that attacked America Israel and Saudi Arabia online

There are times when Iran seems to be one of the most sophisticated nations in the world when it comes to covert operations. They don’t have the level of techniques employed by espionage experts in the United States, Russia, or Israel, nor do they have the technical prowess of China or North Korea, but they have a level of deceptiveness that makes them formidable nonetheless.

But when it comes to disinformation campaigns, they’re ineptitude is almost comical, as Citizen Lab revealed early this morning. The media and technology watchdog and research group has built a reputation for uncovering some of the most complex disinformation schemes conducted across the internet. Their comprehensive uncovering of Endless Mayfly is another huge feather in their bountiful cap.

Here are the key findings from their report:

  • Endless Mayfly is an Iran-aligned network of inauthentic personas and social media accounts that spreads falsehoods and amplifies narratives critical of Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Israel.
  • Endless Mayfly publishes divisive content on websites that impersonate legitimate media outlets. Inauthentic personas are then used to amplify the content into social media conversations. In some cases, these personas also privately and publicly engage journalists, political dissidents, and activists.
  • Once Endless Mayfly content achieves social media traction, it is deleted and the links are redirected to the domain being impersonated. This technique creates an appearance of legitimacy, while obscuring the origin of the false narrative. We call this technique “ephemeral disinformation”.
  • Our investigation identifies cases where Endless Mayfly content led to incorrect media reporting and caused confusion among journalists, and accusations of intentional wrongdoing. Even in cases where stories were later debunked, confusion remained about the intentions and origins behind the stories.
  • Despite extensive exposure of Endless Mayfly’s activity by established news outlets and research organizations, the network is still active, albeit with some shifts in tactics.

It was initially believed the organization was a Russian proxy, but their techniques and subjects eventually pointed to a likelihood of Iran being involved. While Citizen Lab rightly proclaims a likelihood instead of certainty of Iranian involvement, the data seems to be so clearly linked to Iran that there are only two reasonable explanations: either it is someone trying awfully hard to appear to be linked to Iran, or it’s Iran.

I’m going with the latter.

Their favored technique seems to be establishing fake websites with names close enough to legitimate websites that they’re able to fool prolific social media users and eager journalists dying for a juicy story. Buzzfeed News fell victim to one such instance on a website that looked identical to The Guardian, but that used a URL with a Turkish symbol replacing the “i” in “Guardian.”

They weren’t the only ones fooled. This operation seems to be quite vast.

Endless Mayfly

But there were other obvious signs of falsehood that should have been noticed by the “useful idiots” propagating their disinformation. One article linked to from the report shows plenty of errors that a trained journalist should have noticed, and in this case, he did.

On November 5, 2018, Ali Al-Ahmed, a Washington-based expert in terrorism in the Gulf states and a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia, received a direct message on Twitter from “Mona A. Rahman” (@Mona_ARahman, now suspended).

After engaging in some polite conversation in Arabic with Al-Ahmed, “Mona” shared what appeared to be an article from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. The article contained a purported quote from former Mossad director Tamir Pardo, alleging that former Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman had been dismissed by Netanyahu for being a Russian agent. These allegations, if true, might reasonably be expected to strain relations between Russia and Israel.

The story sent to Al-Ahmed is so loaded with spelling and grammatical mistakes, it’s a wonder anyone could get fooled if this is indicative of the quality of Iran’s disinformation work.

Fake News Endless Mayfly

If we assume Iran is, indeed, behind all of this, what does that tell us? We know tensions have been rising between Iran and both the U.S. and Israel. We can assume if they’ve been working at this since at least early 2016, they’ve had an agenda that extended to long before President Trump was elected. They probably found it unlikely he would be. So their goals weren’t to influence the U.S. elections as much as they were intended to shift sentiment from the rest of the world towards the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.

The full report is a wonderful read. As research on such topics, this one is exhaustive and enlightening.

But it still doesn’t answer the question of what this all means for the geopolitical positioning of Iran. They clearly want something, but that something has very likely changed since inception. Their economy was starting to flourish when President Obama was in office. Under President Trump, their economy has begun a rapid fall, prompting alleged actions ranging from sabotaging oil tankers to preparing to strike U.S. targets. They are desperate, and having access to a disinformation organization may help them seed discontent with the United States as our military stance in the Persian Gulf becomes more aggressive.

Iran has been acting like a wild animal cornered by superior forces ever since President Trump started pulling back the layers of protection given to them by President Obama. What will they do next? Their desperation is showing.

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Conspiracy Theory

U.S. points to Iran being behind weekend oil tanker bombings

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US points to Iran being behind weekend oil tanker bombings

Rumors of wars keep popping up in the Middle East and around the world as the United States continues to have our allies prodded and provoked. The latest example is Iran, which U.S. military officials have fingered for the wave of oil tanker bombings over the weekend.

The Associated Press reported that a U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, “said each ship has a 5- to 10-foot hole in it, near or just below the water line, and the team’s early belief is that the holes were caused by explosive charges.”

Was this the intelligence the United States received last month, likely from Ali Nasiri, that prompted the dramatic increase in our military presence in the Persian Gulf? If it is, then this could mark the beginning of actions taken by the United States and/or Israel against Iran.

Opinion

Not to sound too conspiratorial, but the timing of all this is strange. Now that the United States has a stronger military presence in the region, one would think it should have been enough to dissuade Iran from carrying out such attacks. This leads me to two possible conclusions:

  • Iran wants to get attacked. Their economy is in such shambles and getting worse, they feel if they can prompt an attack against them while still being able to claim plausible deniability by using their proxies instead of their military, they will get the sympathies and aid from gullible nations around the world and continue to paint the United States and Israel as the aggressors.
  • Someone staged the attacks to implicate Iran. Saudi Arabian proxies would be the most likely culprits.

The former is by far more likely than the latter, but nothing should be ruled out until we have all the facts.

Either way, Iran continues to play a very dangerous game, one they know they cannot win but that they hope they can survive until they get a handle on all of the moving parts in this situation. Even a massive attack from the United States could leave Iran with their current leadership structure intact; it would not behoove the United States to get involved in regime change now or any time in the reasonable future considering our track record in such things.

Quote

“We’ll see what happens with Iran. If they do anything it will be a very bad mistake, if they do anything. I’m hearing little stories about Iran. If they do anything, they will suffer greatly. We’ll see what happens with Iran.” – President Trump

Final Thoughts

I’m against getting involved in any wars that don’t involve us, but Iran continues to creep closer and closer to direct conflict. It’s as if they want us to attack while painting themselves as non-aggressors. These are dangerous times.

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