The New Oil

Information Security for normal people. Full site: https://www.TheNewOil.xyz, Table of Contents: https://thenewoil.xyz/blog-index.html

Software two-factor apps are a funny thing. They all kind of do the same thing. Having said that, I managed to find one that shines above all the others for iOS: Ravio. So this week, I’ll review that and explain why I recommend it.

2FA: What to Use?

First off, let me remind all my readers that if you’re using SMS two-factor authentication, you need to stop. Go check your account right now and see if you have a better option. In some cases you don’t, and in those cases SMS is better than nothing. But the vast majority of sites these days offer app-based or even hardware-based two-factor, and if the site you’re using does you should use that without a second thought. In a perfect world, hardware 2FA is ideal, but this isn’t always feasible for everyone. For example, you may not have the spare USB space, or the token you want may not be something you can leave plugged in 24/7 meaning you might forget it. Most people don’t forget their phones, so for most people a software 2FA app is the sweet spot.

Why Ravio?

As I said before, there’s a ton of two-factor apps out there and most of them are very similar. In some ways, that makes picking the right one easy. While I have three criteria that apply to iOS 2FA apps, we only need two to really isolate Ravio as the best choice. First, we want something open source. I’ve preached time and time again on why open source is superior even if it’s not perfect. That automatically rules out a ton of apps. Second, Ravio offers local backups without using Apple’s built-in backup feature. A few years ago, my at-the-time 2FA app crashed while I was attempting to add a new account, and it wouldn’t open back up, meaning I had lost all my 2FA codes. For the most part I was able to get these reset, but in a couple cases I was unable to meaning I lost those accounts forever. As such, backups are very important to me now and I want everyone to have that feature. Thus, the only winner left standing: Ravio. (The third criteria, for those who care, is to be actively maintained. Ravio was last updated last month as I write this, so it is maintained.)

The Good

One thing that sets Ravio apart in my opinion was the wealth of icons in the library. Rather than phoning home to pull a Favicon or picking a predetermined icon for you, Ravio appears to respect your privacy by letting you pick an icon. This is actually even more helpful because some sites have multiple icons, and sometimes you have to have multiple accounts. For example, I have a personal Gmail account (I’ve had it for almost ten years and it’s in my real name, so even though I don’t use it I keep it just in case) AND a work email that’s managed by Google, so I can assign them each different Google icons to help me more easily keep track of them. They even have a pretty extensive library of icons for popular privacy respecting services like Proton, Brave, Cryptomater, Mastodon, SimpleLogin, and more. Another cool feature is that your vault is password-protected, so that can give you a second layer of security for your accounts by making a password or PIN that’s separate from your phone’s login PIN or password.

The Bad

Personally my biggest complaint is the fact that the password protection is mandatory. I have the mentality that if my phone has been unlocked, I’m already in trouble and using different passwords for different apps will probably not do me any significant good at that point, so the password lock is more inconvenient to me than helpful. There’s also some privacy services that I’m a little surprised not to see present, like CTemplar. But other than that I honestly don’t really have any complaints. It’s a nice-looking app that works great and I’ve yet to have any issues with it.

Conclusion

I don’t have much to say this week. As I’ve said, 2FA apps are all pretty similar. The main thing that really sets Ravio apart for iOS is the backup feature, but as I said that’s not the only thing. The password-protection and icon selection also make for a pleasant experience that makes it very user-friendly. If you’re an iOS user, I strongly encourage you to check it out if for no other reason than that you can make those backups. Learn from my mistakes.

You can find more recommended services and programs at TheNewOil.xyz. You can also get daily privacy news updates at @thenewoil@freeradical.zone or support my work on Liberapay.

In life – and the privacy and security communities – we are constantly assaulted with a variety of conflicting information. I’m sure there’s no need to give examples, you can find plenty of them just by reading the news or cruising the Privacy subreddit. This week, I want to write possibly my most important blog topic: Critical Think 101, or “how to evaluate a claim.” Don’t let the title fool you, this is not going to be a condescending, partisan politics post about how [insert group here] is dumb and you just need to use common sense. Instead I’m going to give you real, practical steps that you can use in almost any situation to help determine if a person and their claim are worth considering. Please note that this process may not always give you a definite “yes” or “no” on whether a claim is true or not, but it will help you weed out a lot of low-hanging fruit and can be part of your process when deciding whether or not to believe something.

Step 0: Solipsism, Certainty, & Standards of Proof

We need to get something out of the way right now: it is literally impossible to ever be 100%, truly, “come down off a mountain and found a religion” positive about anything. Have you ever heard the famous phrase “I think therefore I am?” It was said by Rene Descartes while he was attempting to determine the nature of reality. Suppose you sat down and decided “I want to prove beyond any doubt what is real.” Am I [Nate Bartram of The New Oil] real to you, the reader? Maybe not. Maybe I’m a VERY well programmed AI, complete with deepfake videos on Surveillance Report and all. Is this blog post real? Maybe not, it could be a glitch on your device. Is your device that you’re reading this on real? Surely, right? After all, you’re holding it in your hand, you can feel it. Not necessarily. Maybe you’re hallucinating. Maybe your home is a hallucination, and your loved ones. You could be in a coma right now, or a brain in a jar being stimulated with electricity by researchers to see what happens. At the end of the day, the only thing you can truly be certain is 100% real is your sense of self, the fact you are perceiving something and that you are conscious. What you are perceiving may be a hallucination, it may not be real, but the fact that you are conscious at all shows that if nothing else, you are real. This is called solipsism. I apologize if I just gave anyone an existential crisis. At the end of the day, I personally do not believe in solipsism and I don’t think it matters either, but the point is that in the most extreme sense of the word, we can never be certain that anything is real.

When it comes to deciding if you believe something, you base that on the “standard of proof,” which could also be called the evidence, the argument, or any number of things. The standard of proof is the level at which someone has presented enough evidence or logic that you say “okay, I believe that.” The standard of proof for a claim should vary depending on the claim. Again, there are some people who demand unrealistic standards of proof, like the infamous “if X is open source, how do we know the-company-behind-X isn’t running a different version on their servers?” At the end of day, a person can always raise their standard of proof to unrealistic levels to the point where you can never meet it and therefore never convince them otherwise. This is a common meme both in media and real life: someone admits they made something up, the believers respond by saying that person was paid off or intimidated into a false confession. The standard of proof is too high to ever be met.

I encourage you to find a balance between the fact that you can never be truly certain and the severity of the claim. It’s a lot like threat modeling: if you tell me that you’re a professional plumber, I’m not going to demand a lot of proof given that the stakes aren’t very high. If you tell me that Matrix has a backdoor, I’m going to demand a higher standard of proof. It is with these two important points in mind – the lack of achieving true certainty and the fact that standards of proof rightfully shift – that we can now move forward. Remember these as I go.

Step 1: The Claim

The Earth is flat. The Moon is made of green cheese. The CIA can read my thoughts. These are all claims that are blatantly ridiculous, and we know this because they are proven, scientific facts. Now look, I know that to some, science itself is suspect these days but as I said above we have to accept that we can never truly be 100% certain of anything. That said, when someone is making a claim, the first place to start is the claim itself. Does this claim contradict proven, repeated evidence? Let me cite a common example: “Signal is a honeypot because it’s an American company.” This claim rests on the idea that because Signal is based in America – a country that is openly hostile towards end-to-end encryption – and because it’s centralized that it therefore must secretly be spyware and that using it is no better (or arguably worse) than just using regular SMS. However, baring any new evidence (which we’ll discuss in a second), this claim is easily disproven. Signal is open source and wildly popular, meaning that many, many experts have laid eyes on it. Numerous experts from across a variety of fields, companies, and levels of experience (this will also be covered later) have all stated that there is no indication in the source code of Signal’s client app that there is any kind of vulnerability. This means that even if the servers were compromised, the messages are still secure. The only way the message could be compromised would be at the device level – if your phone had a keylogger or something like that. This is a claim that has been tested and proven many times over during the course of many years. In fact, we can even go a step further and look at the infamous Vault 7 CIA document leaks and see that the US intelligence community has spent considerable effort attempting (and failing) to crack Signal and find workarounds to circumvent their encryption. If Signal was a honeypot, why would they do that?

Now of course, as I said, there will always be the people with a standard of proof that’s unreachable. Those people will say “maybe all those researchers were paid off” or “maybe Vault 7 was disinformation.” Personally I find that these suggestions make the security of Signal even more likely because of the additional unlikeliness and assumptions required: you have to assume that not a single one of those researchers is ethical, that the ones who were have somehow been COMPLETELY silenced or overlooked, and not to mention this is all stuff that can be verified by any given individual who cares to learn the programming language and examine the Signal code themselves.

This blog post is not meant to be a defense of Signal, but this is a good example: the claim itself can’t stand up scrutiny. There is years of evidence from multiple credible sources that disprove it right off the bat. Unless the person making the claim is presenting new evidence, then the claim itself is probably safe to discredit and ignore. On that note:

Step 2: The Evidence

Suppose, in the Signal example, that the person is presenting new evidence. In fact, they kind of already presented some in the claim: “because Signal is an American company.” Not all evidence is equal or valid. In this case, the person’s evidence is that American companies all inevitably have encryption backdoors. While that specific claim is untrue, it’s a valid concern and it has precedent. Popular messaging platforms like Clubhouse, Facebook Messenger, Skype, Reddit, SMS, and others are not end-to-end encrypted and the providers frequently keep message content for at least a certain period of time. All it takes is one court case and a subpoena for Verizon to turn over all your SMS messages – plus content – to the court to be read aloud in public. But then there’s also the hidden programs like the infamous PRISM program in which the US intelligence community paid companies like Apple, Google, and AT&T for direct, backdoor access into their databases to pop in any time they wanted to collect whatever data they desired. The UK had their own version, TEMPORA, which involved physically splicing into the country’s main internet cables so the government could make a copy of every single piece of internet traffic that passed through the country. And recently, several western countries teamed up to make an “encrypted” messenger with the sole purpose of infiltration criminal groups, all the while it was backdoored and submitted decrypted message content back to authorities. With evidence like this, it’s not hard to see why someone who say that any American-based service is compromised by default.

This brings us the importance of evaluating multiple parts of the claim. While Signal is indeed an American company and that does warrant scrutiny, further evidence has shown that despite Signal’s country of origin, it is likely safe and secure. Suppose the evidence for the claim was new. Suppose the claimant said “because Signal is a UK-based company” or “because Signal sold to Amazon.” These are not true, and if the person is making this claim then they need to provide new evidence to back up that claim such as reputable articles, a company blog, or some sort of public record documents that were filed like a transfer of ownership document with the state. So just to sum up and be clear: sometimes a claim may seem outright ridiculous (“the medical community killed black people just to see what would happen”), but that doesn’t mean you should dismiss it on that alone. You should also examine the other factors, like the person making the claim or the evidence.

The Claimant

The final piece of critical thinking that must be examined is the person making the claim. Now let me be clear: this is NOT the same as an “ad hominem” attack, which is Latin for “to the person.” You’ve likely seen this, and if we’re all being honest we’ve all probably done it in fits of emotional outburst. Let’s keep rolling with the Signal example and let’s pretend I’m the one making the claim that Signal is compromised on account of its American origins. An ad hominem attack might be to point out that I’m openly critical of the federal government and therefore I’m biased. Or to cite my recent interview with Session as proof that I’m trying to knock Signal down a peg to promote Session instead. Or, since in reality I do encourage the use of Signal, you might argue the opposite: because I’m an American I would be loyal to my country and refuse to admit the possibility that Signal might be compromised on that grounds alone.

An ad hominem attack in common usage refers to attacking the person without validity. It’s the fancy equivalent of calling someone a buttface because you didn’t like what they said. But there is, in fact, a way to evaluate a person in a valid, ethical way. Technically this can be broken up in a number of different categories, but in my opinion it all comes down to one broad factor: qualifications. Qualifications are made up of a number of factors that aren’t always necessarily equal or important. For example, education is one. If I’m making the claim that Signal is broken, do I have any education as a cryptographer? A programmer? Did I go to college for it? Did I graduate from MIT or community college? Of course, education alone is not the end-all-be-all. There are many incredibly talented individuals in a variety of fields that are self-taught, and there’s also tons of Harvard and MIT graduates who barely scraped by with C’s and never really did anything exceptional (or at all) in their field of study. This is why I say that qualifications are made up of several factors and that they’re not always equally important. I want my doctor to not be self taught. My app developer, on the other hand, I’m less concerned about. Other factors in the “qualifications” category include things like experience – have they been in this field for ten years or ten months? – and reputation – is this person generally regarded as someone who knows what they’re talking about or are they widely considered a crackpot who’s good for little more than entertainment? It’s also worth considering the person’s possible conflicts of interest, like employer. If ProtonMail releases a study touting the efficacy of PGP, Proton is based on and heavily uses PGP so they have a conflict of interest. Of course they want to say why PGP is good and downplay (or ignore) any evidence that it’s bad. As discussed before, this doesn’t mean they’re wrong and you shouldn’t ignore the claim on this alone, but it’s worth keeping in mind when researching the claim.

Personally I also find it important to separate information about a person based on relevance. For example, let’s say the person making the claim that Signal is bad is an alcoholic. Does that matter? In my opinion, not really. As long as they were sober when they did the research and presented their findings, what they do in their free time is none of my business. Personally I think that’s about as relevant as their sexuality or gender. On the other hand vices like alcohol, drug use, sexual lifestyle or interests, these could potentially (“potentially” being the key word) indicate things like blackmail or sloppiness (hence my “was the person sober when they did the research” caveat), and they tend to be used to smear a person even if it has no bearing on the claim (ad hominem). This is why intelligence communities often look into things like sexual orientation or history of addiction in potential applicants – they want to know if you can be blackmailed by the enemy for things like cheating on your wife or gambling away your kid’s Christmas budget in Vegas.

Caveats

Toward the beginning of this post, I mentioned that the standard of proof can vary, but so can your level of belief in something. For example, I said in my recent interview with Opt-Out Podcast that I firmly believe that Apple can see everything I do on my phone despite having no evidence. Well, that’s not entirely true. I base that claim on the 2014 Documentary “Terms And Conditions May Apply,” in which they demonstrate how digital forensics tools can in certain cases be able to recover the exact keystrokes from your device. If third-party tools can do that after the fact, why wouldn’t Apple be able to in real time? It is for this reason that I don’t trust my phone, but honestly other than this single documentary I don’t have any real proof. I don’t have any leaked Apple memos, any news stories about this, or anything like that. I’m basing all of that off a single story from a person who I know almost nothing about. I believe this claim, but I’m also willing to admit that I’m wrong. My level of belief, if I had to put it on a scale of 1-10 (1 being I don’t believe it at all and 10 being I’m certain of it), I’d say I’m about at a 7.

The point is that you can think something is likely without being convinced of it, and vice versa. You can always change your views as more information comes to light later, and in fact you should. You don’t have to be totally certain of something. You can evaluate a claim, the evidence, and the person making the claim and still walk away going “I’m not really sure, honestly.” As I said at the beginning, the point of this post is not to tell you what to think or how to be certain of something, but rather it’s to give you some tools to help with that process. I see far too many people in all areas of life believing claims at face value. There’s never anything wrong with critical thinking. Now go forth and think great thoughts.

You can find more recommended services and programs at TheNewOil.xyz. You can also get daily privacy news updates at @thenewoil@freeradical.zone or support my work on Liberapay.

Password managers are – thankfully – becoming a mainstream topic. In addition to seeing commercials for certain ones from time to time, it’s becoming more common for me to attempt to spread the word about good passwords only to be met with something like “oh I already use LastPass/Dashlane/1Password/etc.” While it’s good for consumers that there are more of them available, that also makes it rather difficult for people to know what’s best. This week, I’d like to weigh in on this subject. While I will admit that I purposely formatted this blog title for SEO, I am writing this blog on the assumption that you understand the basics of what a password manager is, what it does, and why it matters. If you’re not sure, I encourage you to skim this page of my website quickly and come back.

Criteria

I’ll cut right to the chase: the only two password managers I recommend are Bitwarden and KeePassXC. The first criteria I use to recommend password managers is that they are open source. See this page on my website all about what open source is and why it matters to me. This automatically rules out most of the “mainstream” providers like LastPass, Dashlane, etc. My second criteria that rules out many of the other open-source projects it that they must be cross-platform – that is, they must be available on Windows, Mac, Debian-based Linux, Android, and iPhone. There are some other criteria, which you can view in full here if you care, but those main two will likely answer the inevitable “Why isn’t X listed here?”

Privacy Policy

Bitwarden

Bitwarden’s privacy policy is admittedly not great. This actually serves an excellent example of having security without privacy (I’ll get to Bitwarden’s security in a moment). Visiting the website will automatically result in standard data collection like IP address, cookies, and other automatic identifiers (and needless to say, any other information you knowingly submit like contact forms). They do admit to third-party sharing for the purposes of improving the product, processing payment information, and other such services. The website is also riddled with Google fonts, Cloudflare, and other services that are generally frowned up on in the privacy community for their poor privacy practices, meaning there’s a possibility that those sites may be tracking users even though Bitwarden themselves do not. The policy does not explicitly state but does suggest that app usage is also collected. According to the Apple privacy label, this appears to be limited to crash data.

On the plus side, it does appear that Bitwarden's tracking is limited to their site – in other words, they don’t try to aggregate information about you from other sources to identify you specifically. While this is probably more data about you than they really need, it does seem to be primarily limited to data they want for the purpose of improving the service. They explicitly say in the policy that they ignore Do Not Track signals as they don’t track you anyways. Their mobile app also appears to collect limited data according to the Apple Privacy Label, but unfortunately this “limited data” does include unique identifiers, specifically your Device ID. While I understand the value of this data in regards to security, I suspect they could ignore this information to better preserve privacy if they wanted to.

KeePassXC

KeePassXC’s privacy policy is a lot better. Visiting the website will collect information like partial IP address, browser data, referrer data (if any), and location determined by IP address. On the plus side, the policy explicitly states it will never be shared with third parties (I assume this does not apply to valid law enforcement requests) and is deleted after 90 days. Additionally, they admit to respecting Do Not Track headlines, meaning that if you have that box checked in your browser, no data will be collected in the first place. And even furthermore, KeepassXC only ever contacts the internet on two occasions: to check for new updates, and to pull a website’s favicon (if you request it). No usage analytics are ever submitted (one could argue that auto-checking for updates creates a usage pattern, though personally I view this as a very small, worthwhile risk for most people). For mobile, forks of KeePassXC are used instead of actual Keepass XC. I recommend KeePassDX for Android and Strongbox for iOS. Strongbox explicitly states they collect no information, while KeePassDX’s privacy policy redirects to the official GNU GPL 3.0 license, which tells me they likely have similar practices.

Security

Bitwarden

Bitwarden is cloud-based, which means that you’re automatically opening up some degree of risk by default. However, the database is protected with AES-256 encryption – currently one of the standards that at this time has no known weaknesses – and your password is salted and hashed with bcrypt, which is also considered the current strongest hash algorithm for passwords. For my non-techy readers: they take your security really freaking seriously. The only known weakness at this time would be the master password you use, so make sure you’re using a strong passphrase and two-factor authentication. While it is important to note that nothing is unhackable and keeping your vault in the cloud with Bitwarden is inherently a risk no matter what, at this point in time I would argue that if you’re using a strong master passphrase and two-factor, the average person has nothing to fear on the security front from using Bitwarden.

KeePassXC

KeePassXC’s vault is also encrypted using AES-256. KeePassXC has the advantage of being locally stored, entirely independent of the internet. This means that unless you choose to upload your vault to a cloud service, you have virtually no risk of vault compromise. However, it is important to note that you should keep secure backups as you still run the risk of having your vault get corrupted, being lost if your computer dies, and of course having locally-stored files won’t save you from a compromised device so be sure to take proper and appropriate device security measures overall. I would also encourage the use of a strong passphrase with KeePassXC simply as a precaution, though the odds of needing it are much lower than with Bitwarden (depending on your situation).

Other Features

Quite frankly, Bitwarden and KeePassXC are almost identical in terms of features and functionality. For that reason, I’ll just go ahead and list all the major features and differences here in one section. Both allow you to generate random passwords or passphrases, both allow you to specify the criteria for those passwords (length, special characters, etc), and both will allow you to store your two-factor keys in the app for a more convenient login experience (for Bitwarden this is a paid feature and for KeePassXC this does require a small degree of manual expertise from the user. Regardless, be aware that this does make your password vault a “single point of failure” and therefore this feature should be used cautiously). Bitwarden does have a secure file send feature they recently rolled out for premium users, but I personally have never used it as this isn't something I expect of my password manager and I already have other methods for doing that anyways. I would say the only difference between the two in terms of features and function is the user interface: Bitwarden is very sleek, very modern, very pleasing to the eye, and very easy to navigate. KeePassXC looks a bit more outdated, a bit older, a bit more rough, and some of the more advanced features can be confusing and intimidating (fortunately most users don’t have to worry about these features and can safely ignore them). Both services also allow for a browser extension to easily login to websites. I recommend keeping your browser extensions to a minimum, but that’s useful for those who have come to rely on such features. It's also worth mentioning that Bitwarden does have a paid teams feature, so if you run a company then Bitwarden would be the clear winner here as they make it incredibly easy to integrate multiple users into the same shared vault so that you can use strong passwords at work while still giving access to everyone who needs those sites or accounts.

Ultimately, for individuals, you can’t go wrong with either of these options and which one you should pick depends on your threat model and your lifestyle. If you have a low threat model – that is, you are unlikely to be specifically targeted by an individual or organization – and you value convenience, Bitwarden is probably the right choice for you with their single app, synchronization across all devices, and sleek user interface. If you have a higher threat model (or you simply distrust the cloud), you’re willing to do a little extra work, you don’t mind a slightly outdated design, and/or you’re more techy, then KeepassXC is right for you. Whichever one you use, remember to use a strong passphrase (and two-factor for Bitwarden), keep good backups, and you should be pretty well protected. Now go forth and create strong, unique passwords everywhere.

You can find more recommended services and programs at TheNewOil.xyz. You can also get daily privacy news updates at @thenewoil@freeradical.zone or support my work on Liberapay.

A 2019 study from Stanford University challenged a random sampling of Facebook users to quit the site for a month. The results were mostly positive: people felt happier, interacted with friends and family more, and were less polarized in terms of news and politics. I often encourage my readers to ditch mainstream social media like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and similar sites if at all possible, as I have also felt those same effects. Particularly I noticed that my conversations with friends and family became significantly more meaningful and felt more genuine and sincere. But there was one major downside the study found that I also noticed: people felt less informed. While we all know that Big Tech is feeding us selective headlines based on our algorithms, it can still be helpful to get even a few major, biased headlines to help us know generally what’s going on in the world. When you give up social media, that information is no longer fed to you, and it becomes your job to find out how to stay informed. So this week, I want to share what works for me to help stay informed without sacrificing my privacy so much.

Newsletters

An obvious method we often forget about is newsletters. Most organizations that you may want to follow – like non-profits and companies – offer newsletters. If your first reaction to that was “ugh, my inbox is already cluttered,” then you will have to go through and start unsubscribing to stuff. Once you do that, I encourage you to use an email masking service (so that you can burn the address if it gets breached or starts spamming you) and start signing up to newsletters you care about. Feel free to unsubscribe to any of them if you stop caring. The companies won’t hound you, I promise. They’re focused on other stuff.

Bonus tip: most email providers offer folders and rules that allow you to keep your inbox organized. For example, as a freelancer I have certain recurring client emails automatically drop into a freelance folder. That way I can open that folder and see ONLY emails pertaining to work, clients, contracts, upcoming events, etc. I don’t have to see that folder interspersed with a bunch of newsletters, personal emails, etc. Likewise, you can create a folder and have all your newsletters go straight there so you can check them at your leisure and/or keep them out of your main inbox so it doesn’t get cluttered.

Please note that many emails of all kinds – not just newsletters – come with tracking pixels and analytics built into them. Make sure you have your email client or inbox set to not load remote content automatically and instead load it manually. This will prevent much of this tracking and give you a much more private experience.

Alternate Social Media

I’m a big fan of Mastodon. It’s like a privacy-respecting Twitter. I’ve met some really cool people, seen some neat ideas, and overall had a positive experience. One cool thing about Mastodon is that many people have created mirrors which basically just copy and repost content from Twitter. There’s several BBC News mirrors, for example, so I can still subscribe to BBC if I wanted to and get their tweets. Some privacy-conscious companies even manage their Mastodon directly, like Tutanota and Nextcloud. This is not limited to Mastodon. For videos, some people cross-post or mirror their content from YouTube to PeerTube. This isn’t always a guarantee, but it’s worth looking into. You’d be surprised sometimes what has been mirrored or has a fediverse account.

RSS

Alright, this is the power-user option where you’ll probably get the best results. It sounds harder than it is, so don’t panic. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, and it used to be all the rage back in the mid 2000s. These days it’s less common, but still widely supported. First, you’ll need an RSS reader. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of open source, privacy respecting options here. As far as I know, there’s only two: Tiny Tiny RSS and Thunderbird. I personally lean toward Thunderbird as I tend to use it for email as well, so it kills two birds with one stone, but admittedly it’s not the prettiest solution. At any rate, for most websites I simply search “[website name] rss” and that usually pops up a direct link to their feed. For example, here’s a Brave Search for “Wired RSS”. Most websites don’t advertise their RSS feeds anymore, so I’ve found this to be the most direct and least-frustrating way of finding it. From there, you can add that link to your RSS reader of choice and set the options to your liking: how often to check for new stories, how far back to keep old stories, etc.

But wait, there’s more! You don’t need to limit your RSS experience to just news sites. I also use RSS to keep up with Twitter accounts, subreddits, and even YouTube channels. Let's start with Reddit because that one is easiest. Simply go to the subreddit you wish to follow, such as the Privacy subreddit, and add “/.rss” to the end and add it to your reader: https://www.reddit.com/r/privacy/.rss. There are additional tips you can add here, such as to only pull the top posts each day if you’d like to filter out some of the lower-level content. Michael Bazzell talks about some of these configurations in his own podcast episode about RSS here.

For Twitter, you’ll need to pick a Nitter instance. Any instance will do so long as it’s reliable. Then you find the account you wish to follow. In this case, we’ll use mine as an example. Then you’ll add “/rss” to the end and add it to your RSS reader: https://nitter.nixnet.services/thenewoil1/rss. Bam! You are now following my Twitter account without needing an account of your own! (Note: I encourage you to follow me on Mastodon, instead. It’s the same content. I only use Twitter so I can schedule posts and mirror them to Mastodon.)

YouTube was a little trickier and took me some time to track down. In this scenario, we’ll use The Hated One, a popular YouTuber who produces content about Big Tech and privacy. After a lot of searching, I found the following code that seems to work for me: https://www.youtube.com/feeds/videos.xml?channel_id=Channel_ID. Where it says “Channel_ID,” we’ll replace that with the link at the end of The Hated One’s channel from above. It now becomes https://www.youtube.com/feeds/videos.xml?channel_id=UCjr2bPAyPV7t35MvcgT3W8Q. So that means to make that link work with any channel, simply copy the channel ID. For example, Techlore’s YouTube channel is https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCs6KfncB4OV6Vug4o_bzijg, so the new RSS link becomes https://www.youtube.com/feeds/videos.xml?channel_id=UCs6KfncB4OV6Vug4o_bzijg. My own channel is https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCH5DsMZAgdx5Fkk9wwMNwCA, so my RSS link would become https://www.youtube.com/feeds/videos.xml?channel_id=UCH5DsMZAgdx5Fkk9wwMNwCA. (Alternately, you can just get the RSS link directly from my PeerTube channel with no trickery or fuss.)

Podcasts

Last but not least, let’s not ignore podcasts. Many news outlets – and a variety of other creators and brands – offer regular podcasts, ranging from twice a day to once every other week, where they share top stories. This can also be a great place for you to get your information, especially if you’re on the go and rarely have time to sit down and sort through an RSS feed. Unfortunately the podcast landscape is getting invasive. Spotify and Apple are the two biggest podcast apps, and both of those are already quite invasive (with Spotify becoming more and more so each year). Spotify is even going a step further by offering many podcast series contracts to become “Spotify exclusive,” further locking listeners into their data-sucking monopoly. Many privacy-respecting podcasts share RSS links so you can listen to them without the invasive tracking, but again we’re now back in that same position of using an RSS reader. Of course, you could always download the episode and upload it to your media player of choice for listening on the go, but that may be more than some readers are willing to do. The point is: podcasts are an option, but they are not without privacy risks. Beware.

Conclusion

That’s all there is to it, honestly. Those are all the tricks I personally use to stay educated. RSS is my main option, as it gives me the chance to sort through things on a protected desktop environment at my own pace, but as with everything in privacy that may not be right for everyone. If I missed any tricks (or RSS readers), feel free to let me know. Good luck out there and stay safe!

You can find more recommended services and programs at TheNewOil.xyz. You can also get daily privacy news updates at @thenewoil@freeradical.zone or support my work on Liberapay.

I ended up delisting them. So instead, I want to take this week to remind both my readers and myself about the mission behind The New Oil and to make sure I'm staying true to that.

Why Delist Mailbox.org?

Mailbox.org is a perfectly fine service. In fact, I’ve even had some readers argue that Mailbox is a better choice than Proton or Tutanota for… reasons? I didn’t really get their argument, it was confusing and circular, but the point is there is nothing wrong with Mailbox.org. So why delist them? Because zero-knowledge and PGP were not activated by default and actually required some intentional setup on behalf of the user. Just as how many critics say that Telegram not enabling end-to-end encryption by default lulls inexperienced users into a false sense of security, I think this falls into the same category. This is not a problem for my more advanced readers, but it can very confusing and overwhelming for newbies, and while I welcome advanced readers and value your feedback, frankly The New Oil isn’t aimed at you.

The Vision

I’ve once heard it described as “The Grandparent Test.” This doesn’t appear to be a popular phrase, but I think it should be. The Grandparent Test asks “can your grandparents get started and continue using it with little or no help?” I think most of us have at least some firsthand experience with helping someone who is not tech-savvy get started on something. Maybe you had to help fix Excel for your coworker or show your grandma how to send an email. As someone who’s been moderately techy my entire life, I have had many of these experiences. It only got more common as I became a privacy advocate: helping people find Signal in the app store, helping my mom try Matrix, etc.

My goal for The New Oil was and is, ultimately, to pass The Grandparent Test. I mentioned in a recent Decentralize Today blog post that at the time I started TNO, I was not aware of any websites that offered comprehensive, user-friendly information. PrivacyTools.io was – and largely is – a list of tools with no instruction or context. Michael Bazzell is at times too hardcore and makes his money from book sales so the information wasn’t freely available (you can learn a lot from his podcast but it’s still not comprehensive). I couldn’t direct my mother, grandmother, brother, or anyone to any of these sites and say “here’s a starting point to learn at your own pace.” They needed me to translate, which was inconvenient for both them and me. I wanted to create a website that said “hey, you know nothing? Cool. Here’s what you need to know to get started” and people could move at their own pace.

I also wanted to stop there. I know firsthand – and I’m sure many of my readers do, too – that if you try to create a tool that does everything, you end up creating a tool that does almost everything but really poorly. It’s best to create something that focuses on solving one specific problem, and refine that tool until it solves that one problem really well. This is why The New Oil doesn’t offer tips on how to adjust the about:config of your Firefox browser, how to use uBlock’s advanced mode, how to use virtual machines, or any of that stuff (although I would look to create an “advanced tips & tricks” series of videos on PeerTube in the future that covers this sort of stuff). I want to help people who don’t understand digital privacy to understand it and get started and that’s it, no extra information or overwhelming optional stuff. Personally I think I do that well. If you disagree, I recently open sourced the website. Feel free to submit an issue for suggested improvement. So why did I delist Mailbox.org? Because it wasn’t user-friendly. It’s a fine service, and I see no reason that my more advanced readers shouldn’t use it or should switch, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling my mother to use it because it would be too easy for her to overlook changing the PGP settings and then having a false sense of security.

Reviews

This also brings up an issue I’ve been tossing around in my head for quite some time: consistency and criteria. During a discussion with one of the community managers of PrivacyTools, they pointed out that I didn’t have any kind of publicly listed criteria for how to I decide what tools to list and what tools not to. They made a really good point, and that’s been on my mind ever since. And to their defense, I didn’t really have a criteria. I knew I wanted to go with open source whenever possible (the VoIP section is pretty much the only one that doesn’t meet this criteria), and I mainly base my recommendations on tools that have been vetted and have a good reputation in the privacy community. Of course I did my own research, too, but there was no hard and fast “here’s the rules.” So, thanks in no small part to the feedback from my wonderful Matrix community, I’ve decided to remedy that. I have added a Wiki on GitLab explaining the criteria I use to judge each section and what allows an app to be listed on my site. Furthermore, the review criteria for my twice-monthly reviews are in the process of being standardized and will be posted in each review, as well as being available on the GitLab Wiki. As always, if you have any suggestions, feel free to share.

You can find more recommended services and programs at TheNewOil.xyz. You can also get daily privacy news updates at @thenewoil@freeradical.zone or support my work on Liberapay.

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.

Desktop

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.)

Router

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.

Mobile

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.

Raspberry Pi

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.

You can find more recommended services and programs at TheNewOil.xyz. You can also get daily privacy news updates at @thenewoil@freeradical.zone or support my work on Liberapay.

Even if you’re not big into privacy or security, you’ve likely at least heard of Signal. The WhatsApp/Telegram competitor rose to mainstream prominence earlier this year, when WhatsApp announced planned changes to their privacy policy and Elon Musk almost immediately tweeted “Use Signal.” Though the app had been around for years, these two factors combined to catapult Signal into the mainstream consciousness overnight, hitting the number one spot in multiple countries’ app stores and even crashing the servers for a weekend. So what is Signal, should you use it (and why, if yes), and how does it rank for those who value their privacy and security?

The Service

Signal is an end-to-end encrypted messenger, similar to WhatsApp or (arguably) Telegram. Based in the US, it was founded by Moxie Marlinspike around July 2014. It allows voice, text, or video chat to any other user (one-to-one or up to five at once) and has a variety of features that might appeal to mainstream users like stickers and GIFs. Signal is based on the Signal Protocol encryption, which I will discuss more in a moment.

The Good

Actually, let’s just go ahead and start there. Signal’s encryption is good. Like, really good. So good that according to the Vault 7 leaks, the CIA has considered pretty much every insane idea to circumvent it because they can’t actually crack it. While Signal has its fair share of detractors and criticisms (some of them valid, many of them not), you can’t knock them for their encryption. It is world-class, and is even used by WhatsApp, Facebook Secret Messages, Skype, and even Google (they know a thing or two about security). The app itself is used by the EU Commission, numerous politicians, journalists, whistleblowers, and law enforcement. Unarguably, you can’t get much better security than Signal.

Setup is – as I like to call it – insultingly easy. Seriously. If you’ve never tried Signal before, go do it right now just so you can see how ridiculously easy set up is. You download it, you basically hit “next” three or four times, and you’re ready to go. On Android, you can even make Signal your default messenger so that if you text another Signal user but don’t know they use Signal, it will automatically make use of the encryption. Actually using the app is also incredibly easy, with very intuitive and plain-English buttons, menus, and options.

Signal is fast, stable, and if you don’t want to use your SIM number (I’ll mention that in a second), you can use a VoIP number with no additional work except that you have to manually enter the verification code rather than Signal pulling it automatically. Messages are end-to-end encrypted by default, unlike services such as Telegram which require you to enable encryption. Perhaps most importantly, Signal as a company has a proven track record of not logging any user data and having virtually nothing to turn over to police when requested.

The Bad

Signal’s downsides are, in my opinion, far and few between. However, they are legitimate and worth noting. One “bad thing” that some people note is that Signal is based in the US. Given that Signal is open source, audited, and has proven themselves to respect user privacy, I personally don’t think this is a big deal. However, the US government is a notorious enemy of privacy. For the vast majority of people, I wouldn’t consider this a reason not to use Signal, but it is worth being aware of what laws Signal is subject to and the hostility the company faces from the government.

The next most obvious flaw is that Signal requires a phone number to use. Phone numbers are as good as social security numbers these days and a quick web search of a phone number can turn up tons of identifying information. While one can use a VoIP number (as I mentioned above), most people won’t (not to mention that this alienates people who don’t have a valid phone number and can’t get a VoIP number). This is a realistic potential privacy and security risk for every user, and while Signal has said they plan to roll out usernames in the future, they’re not here yet and last time I checked there was no real word on when “the future” would arrive.

Let’s address the elephant in the room: the Mobilecoin incident. For those who don’t know, Signal went almost a year between Spring 2020 – Spring 2021 without publicly posting the source code for their server. They continued to share the client source code, and those who examined it found it was still secure, however the client very obviously was contacting an updated server version than the one that was posted and Signal refused to say why they hadn’t updated it. Speculation ran rampant about malicious backdoors, government gag orders, and more. It turned out that Signal was laying the groundwork to integrate a privacy-respecting payment platform with a cryptocurrency called Mobilecoin. This move was considered highly controversial for a number of reasons. Among some of the most valid and popular reasons: it was considered highly unethical and shady to keep users in the dark about the server code updates, integrating cryptocurrency can attract unwanted attention from government regulators like the IRS and FTC, and many users expressed concerns about what impact this would have on the security of Signal and the possibility that this was all a “pump and dump” financing scheme. You can find my take on this story here and you can find a (in my opinion somewhat sensational but factually correct) deep dive here. Here’s the takeway from all this: while this incident – at this time – does not indicate any sort of technical compromise with Signal’s privacy or security, it definitely cast a lot of doubt on them as an organization ethically.

Last but not least, there’s also been a lot of rightful accusations and concerns about Signal’s infrastructure, such as using services like AWS and Google to support their cloud. While – again – there’s no reason to suspect that Amazon or Google have any access to user messages or data, it is understandably troubling that using Signal also means supporting some of the biggest enemies of privacy on the planet by proxy. One could consider this the necessary evil of making Signal reliably available to the masses, but it’s still not comforting. Moxie has also been very strict about refusing to allow Signal to be decentralized or federated, even going so far as to legally pursue and shut down forks that attempt to be interoperable with Signal. Once again, this is done in the name of keeping Signal scalable and reliably secure (if everyone can run their own server, some servers will inevitably fall out of date due to lack of administrative maintenance which will create security risks for everyone involved) but it’s still a ding for people who value decentralization.

Final Verdict

I’ll be honest: I like Signal. The stability, the ease of use, it can’t be matched. I use Signal for 90% of my conversations with friends, family, and even a good chunk of The New Oil conversations. There’s never any issues with key exchange, the messages arrive quickly, the call quality is clear, communication is reliable, and it’s just so freaking easy. There’s no easier messenger out there. However, I’m not a Signal fanboy who will defend them to the ends of the Earth. Their opacity during the Mobilecoin incident was inexcusable, and I’ve already gotten all my close family to sign up for Matrix in the event that we ever have to jump ship on Signal (if Session rolls out voice calls any time soon then I’ll move them all to that instead, Session is also easy to set up). I like Signal, but as soon as I see any reasonable indication that they've been compromised, I'm out.

The moral is this: Signal is not a perfect company. To their defense, I’ve yet to find a “perfect” company or “perfect” anything really. They've made some ethically questionable business decisions and they could check more privacy-enthusiast boxes if they did things differently. But they are reputable, proven, and perfect for the masses. If you have a high threat model or like to go to the extreme for your privacy, Signal may not be for you (at least not yet). But for 95% of people reading this, Signal is just fine. They take user privacy and security seriously and they’re easy to use with a plethora of features. I whole-heartedly recommend Signal to most people. If you’re still looking for a messenger, I think this one is worthy of your consideration.

You can download Signal here.

You can find more recommended services and programs at TheNewOil.xyz. You can also get daily privacy news updates at @thenewoil@freeradical.zone or support my work on Liberapay.

Amazon’s now-legendary “Prime Day” was just announced this week: June 21-22. Much like Black Friday or Cyber Monday, this means sales on lots of items on Amazon’s vast marketplace, and as such many people flock to the giant’s website to get sweet deals on everything from computers to small kitchen appliances and more. But this year, I urge you to resist the allure. Far be it from me to tell you what to spend your money on or where, but in this week’s post I hope to lay out a compelling case for everyone for why Amazon is full-stop evil, no caveats, and is undeserving of your money on a moral and ethical level. Amazon needs to be stopped, and legislation will not do so. Only its loyal consumers – who keep the beast alive – can do that by taking their money elsewhere.

Here are five reasons that you should stop supporting Amazon with your money and purchases.

Amazon Is An Enemy of Black Lives Matter

Do you believe that black lives matter? Do you think police have too much funding, too little oversight, are a tool of an oppressive regime, and/or are a private police force for the rich to keep the poor and minorities in line? Well guess what: up until last year Amazon proudly sold their Rekognition facial recognition software to law enforcement agencies all cross the country. Like every other facial recognition software out there, this system was notoriously bad at accurately identifying minorities, including people of color and women. Amazon only stopped for PR reasons at the start of the George Floyd protests, and even then they only issued a “one-year moratorium.” This has since been extended indefinitely, but frankly that doesn’t matter. It’s still just PR. Why do I say that? Because for one, that ban only applies to the US. Amazon is still free to sell their faulty facial recognition services to other countries and industries. Second, Amazon still gives police across the nation unfettered access to Ring doorbells, allowing police to have vast real-time surveillance networks paid for by private citizens who may not even know law enforcement has this sort of access. Amazon is actively helping police spy on and identify – poorly – everyone, even peaceful protesters.

Amazon Is An Enemy of Small Businesses

“Well I think all lives matter,” you may say to yourself, “and I support our law enforcement officers.” That’s cool. If you’re more right-leaning, you probably believe in the free market and you’ll likely be furious to know that Amazon actively crushes small businesses. Amazon has been repeatedly proven to use data gathered from small merchants who use their marketplace to create competing products, avoiding the financial hit of the mistakes that those smaller businesses may have already made in marketing, pricing, or production. Not that it matters, because Amazon can also just use their massive empire to undercut the competition, selling products at a massive loss until the competitor is eventually driven out of business, then bouncing prices back up to profit-making levels once there’s no alternatives to compete with. The use of this data in the first place isn’t just free market sorting itself out, it’s straight up corporate espionage. It’s one thing if I left my job to work for a competitor and said “we learned that our customers respond better to blue than red.” It would be completely different for me to take a copy of all our business records, marketing documents, and passwords with me. That’s basically what Amazon does. They leverage their highly-invasive platform (which is so ubiquitous that to NOT sell on Amazon is practically a death sentence) to harvest sensitive business data and then use their resources to take the hit until the smaller guys can’t anymore and fold. In any other scenario, this would be corporate spying and illegal monopolizing. Even if it wasn’t illegal, I’d have a hard time believing any free-market enthusiast actually has no problem with this.

Amazon Is An Enemy of Human Rights

Maybe you’re an apolitical person (there’s really no such thing and that’s actually a very “privileged” stance to take, but I digress). In this situation, you can probably agree that we’re all human beings. We all deserve to be treated with respect, no matter what. Well, Amazon is unbelievably hostile to worker’s rights. For years, Amazon Prime delivery drivers have been reporting unrealistic expectations like being expected to deliver 200 packages in a 9-hour shift (that’s about 1 package every 3 minutes), missing pay, intimidation, favoritism, and buggy AI tracking their “performance” (even off the clock). Many of them have reported having to pee in bottles to try to stay on schedule. One reported a hospital-worthy injury where he was advised to finish his deliveries (several hours’ worth) before seeking medical treatment. Warehouse workers report timed bathroom breaks and not being allowed sit down for a few minutes outside of breaks (I’m all about hard work ethic, but you’ve seriously never had a day where you just needed five minutes to gather yourself?). Amazon took it one step further with patented wearables in the workplace to spy on employees and make them work even harder. (For the record, there’s no evidence they plan to roll this out yet but the fact that they expressed an interest in controlling the rights to this technology is unsettling.) When workers expressed an interest in unionizing so they could force more humane working conditions (aren’t there already supposed to be labor laws in the first place?) Amazon used their powerful surveillance network to spy on and infiltrate those groups and even attempted to put cameras over the ballot boxes to “ensure integrity.” Amazon doesn’t give a crap about their employees, it’s all about the bottom line and quite frankly I’m surprised they haven’t just moved overseas to sweat shops.

Amazon Is An Enemy of Democracy

“Wow, we really need some regulation on Amazon!” you might be thinking. Yeah, that’d be cool, except that at this point Amazon is more powerful than the US government. Amazon spent $18 million in 2020 on lobbying – for those who live outside the US, “lobbying” is a fancy word for “legal bribery.” I’m not making that up. It started off with good intentions and it does make sense, but it gets abused constantly and in laughably transparent ways that make every American citizen wonder how the hell this practice is legal. Anyways, that’s not the point. Have you ever wondered why the “settlement” amounts in corporate lawsuits are always so obnoxiously low? It’s because corporations hire GOOD lawyers. They can afford to hire lawyers who are field experts and can pay them to focus all their time and attention only on that one company and that one subject/department. Then they can pour even more resources into filing new paperwork, doing research, fighting the case, etc. Eventually the court costs start to pile up and the idea of dragging this out for years and spending millions of dollars becomes arduous, frustrating, and impractical. Look at the recent Home Depot data breach settlement – 10 years later! This is compounded even more when you’re an elected official. “You’ve spent HOW MUCH taxpayer money on fighting over some silly case that doesn’t even concern me – the voter – in a way I can comprehend when that money could’ve gone to better roads, schools, healthcare, national defense, etc?” The fact is that these cases do matter and do concern everyone, but it’s hard to care when you’re buying new rims because you damaged the old one on a pothole, or when your kid brings home a history book from 1989, or when you work 60 hours a week and still don’t qualify for basic healthcare coverage. Amazon can’t be reigned in by regulation because they can outspend the government in time, fines, lobbying, and any other area that they need to. The government has to answer for their tax money spent (in theory). Amazon only has to answer to shareholders and only one question: “how much more money did you make me this quarter?” They can afford to hire lobbyists who shape the laws, and if they fail that they can always drag the court case into oblivion until it just gets settled.

You Are Part of The Problem

Do you remember when Chris Brown beat Rihanna? When that was still top news and I met people who listened to his music I’d always ask them “don’t have you an issue with him beating up Rihanna?” and without fail they’d always answer “Of course! But I just like his music, I don't support what he did.” Here’s the thing though: it’s impossible in situations like that to benefit without supporting the person in question. Every album purchase, every stream, every shirt purchased, every YouTube view, these are all metrics he can use to justify his popularity and book large venues with large guarantees. Honestly I’d even leverage illegal downloads if I was his booking agent. “They can download a song, they can’t download a concert. Those are potentially paying fans.” The same is true with Amazon. In no way can you give any money to Amazon and NOT be directly contributing to these problems I’ve listed above. Every penny you spend can be directed towards developing new surveillance tech or hiring new sales people to score new government contracts. Every purchase you make says that you’re okay with how things are currently working at Amazon and shows them that you’re willing to spend money there. Even using Alexa is sharing your data, which Amazon then uses to refine their products or serve you more ads (which they get paid for). There is absolutely no way for you to use Amazon that doesn’t tell their shareholders “I’m okay with this. Keep the course.” The only way that we can ever hope to affect change is to force their hand by taking your money elsewhere.

Reality and Next Steps

Look, I’m a realist, okay? I know that sometimes there are things that you absolutely cannot get anywhere else except Amazon (or if you can, it costs significantly more). First off, I’d ask you to weigh your definition of “significantly.” Paying $5 more on a $100 product is not “significant.” Furthermore, depending on your financial situation, paying $5 more on a $20 product may also not be much for you. In these cases, I urge you to take the ethical path and not give into Amazon. It’s worth paying a little extra for a good cause. Having said that, paying $50 more for a $10 product, that’s understandably different. If you must use Amazon, here’s my suggestions: First off, if you already have an account, you’re probably fine to leave it active. Your history will stay there, but frankly if you create a new account, it’s likely to get flagged and suspended or if you do it wrong Amazon will still trace it back to you anyways. Feel free to keep your current account, but go ahead and make sure you use good practices like 2FA, strong passwords, and forwarding e-mail addresses.

If you’re making a new account, I recommend using a forwarding email address or an old, already very-publicly exposed email address for credibility purposes (like an old Gmail address). I’ve had good success with buying pre-paid Amazon gift cards in cash at 7/11 and using those to make my purchases, however I’ve heard some people have still had their accounts flagged regardless in those situations, so don’t put too much money in right away in case that happens. You can attempt to make new accounts for every purchase (since ideally this should be rare for you anyways), or you can attempt to make one account and just keep topping it up as needed. Michael Bazzell offers more details on what's worked for him on this podcast episode.

Last but not least, I encourage you not only to avoid Amazon itself, but avoid their subsidiaries as using them will still contribute to Amazon’s unethical empire. Unfortunately this includes popular brands like Twitch, Audible, IMDB, GoodReads, Zappos, and over 100 others. I know it’s a lot and it can be hard, but as I outlined before we can’t keep hoping someone else will reign them in. It’s going to take a collective, serious effort to hit them where it hurts (the wallet) and force them to start being a more ethical company.

Prime Day is later this month. Please, avoid it.

You can find more recommended services and programs at TheNewOil.xyz. You can also get daily privacy news updates at @thenewoil@freeradical.zone or support my work on Liberapay.

Two weeks ago, I decided to pit all of the commonly-promoted “privacy-respecting” iOS browsers against each other to see if I could determine empirically which one was actually the most private. Unsurprisingly, within minutes of posting I received feedback. Surprisingly, most of it wasn’t “you suck and you’re wrong because I’m loyal to my browser.” Rather, it was “you forgot one.” Allow me to remedy that situation. This week, I will be reviewing SnowHaze. If you need a reminder of my methodology, you can check the blog in question here.

Privacy Policy

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SnowHaze starts off strong out the gate by claiming to collect absolutely no information about you, anonymous or otherwise. In this respect, SnowHaze easily usurps Brave to win the privacy policy category.

Winner: SnowHaze

Loser: Safari

Not to much say here. SnowHaze is the obvious winner and Safari is still abysmal.

Browser Fingerprinting

Things get really weird in this section. SnowHaze offers an ungodly amount of granular control over the browser’s privacy settings – which I will discuss in the “Features” section. When highly configured, I was unable to run Cover Your Tracks at all, which leads me to assume (without evidence, for the record) that this means fingerprinting you at all has become relatively impossible for most sites, or at least quite difficult (from what I understand, many common fingerprint methods rely on Javascript). However, this also causes significant breakage across many sites. After tinkering for a few weeks, I finally found some settings that mostly work across most sites. The particular settings that seems to matter for testing sites like Cover Your Tracks and Speedometer mostly seem to boil down to the Content Blockers section. At the time of this test, I was only able to disable Fonts and still get a score. Remember that as always your results may vary, especially depending on how you configure the vast settings options.

SnowHaze: 17.96

Winner: Safari

Loser: Brave/DuckDuckGo

Based on this score, SnowHaze ranks second worst just above Safari. However, it’s worth noting that I suspect this score is not truly reflective of my average browsing experience. As I said above, I was only able to get a score by enabling everything except Fonts. In my daily browsing, I usually have Raw/XHR disabled, and often third-party scripts as well. I also have SnowHaze set not to load any Javascript unless I manually approve it on a per-site basis (another Feature we’ll discuss later). And last but not least, SnowHaze can be set to spoof User Agents, so much like Brave's fingerprint is large but fake, I suspect that SnowHaze works in a similar fashion. While this score seems particularly bad, I suspect it's not.

Browser Speed

SnowHaze: 48.35 (+/–.47)

Winner: SnowHaze

Loser: DuckDuckGo

Once again, I had to severely dial back the number of content blockers I was using in order for Speedometer 2.0 to finish its test without stalling. I assume part of the test includes loading XHR and third-party scripts. From what I understand this means that with more aggressive content blockers your speed should actually improve because you’re loading less content. Either way, SnowHaze easily comes in on par with or dramatically ahead of Brave, the previous winner, who had a score of 49 (+/–.53).

Features

Alright, this is where SnowHaze really puts the rest to shame. SnowHaze has granular features for controlling the browser that I have never seen before on a mobile browser. While Brave and DuckDuckGo do offer some good features like control over what data is retained, the ability to add protected sites, and stuff like that, SnowHaze goes all out. SnowHaze offers the usual general features like search engine selection and appearance, but also the ability to lock your browser with a passcode, the ability to spoof your User Agent (and to select which agents to spoof), granular history and tracking control, additional content blockers that I alluded to above including CSS, third party javascript, fonts, etc, and even has an experimental Tor integration feature (which I don’t recommend but it’s cool that they offer it). And those are just the highlights. You have the ability to disable Javascript by default and then enable it on a site-by-site basis, and you can even easily add custom search engines like SearX! Hands down SnowHaze has the most features out of any browser I reviewed for this study, and the amount of control it gives you over your browsing experience makes it laugh in the face of lesser browsers. SnowHaze offers all the same features that any other given browser would and then some.

Winner: SnowHaze

Loser: Firefox Focus

Final Verdict

Winner: SnowHaze

I can think of one situation where I would recommend Brave over SnowHaze: ease. Because of the massive amount of of options, setting up SnowHaze can be a bit daunting. The default settings are – in my opinion – not ideal. I understand the desire to create a browser that’s basically ready to go out of the box, but I think SnowHaze could afford to tighten up their default settings a bit and still retain functionality for the average person. Even so, I commonly recommend that any time you set up a new account or download a new app you should make time to go through the settings and tweak them. This means any person downloading SnowHaze for the first time can quickly become overwhelmed by the exhaustive number of options to be examined, interpreted, and possibly changed. Even moreso, those settings will likely change as they browse and realize a certain functionality they want/need broke. I personally pretty much only use my browser to surf webcomics and Reddit when I’m bored (which is rare) and to make quick, important searches when I’m away from my desk. Despite that limited usage, I quickly found myself changing settings to make more and more sites work properly as I went, finally finding a mostly-happy medium after about a week or so. The average person may be frustrated by the constant tweaking and want something that just works.

Hands down, I think SnowHaze is the most superior iOS browser I’ve found so far, and thank you to the multiple readers who alerted me to overlooking it. This has been a lifechanging experiment. I highly encourage you to make the switch if you use iOS, and here’s what I recommend: keep Brave for a short time as a fallback. Download Snowhaze, change the settings, get used to it, but until you get it dialed in just right be sure to have a backup for when you can’t afford to experiment to find what’s breaking the site. Once you get SnowHaze dialed in just right, go ahead and delete Brave. That’s what I did. (Well, DuckDuckGo for me if you recall the last blog, but same concept). SnowHaze is truly an incredible piece of work. Well done, devs.

You can find more recommended services and programs at TheNewOil.xyz. You can also get daily privacy news updates at @thenewoil@freeradical.zone or support my work on Liberapay.

Disclosure: I have an affiliate link with SimpleLogin that gives me credit towards my own SL account. 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.

In this review, I’ve decided to lump both AnonAddy and SimpleLogin into the same review because they’re so incredibly similar in their offerings and features, though I will note any differences between them. I don’t think of this blog as “AnonAddy vs SimpleLogin,” though I’m sure it will help anyone who’s on the fence decide between the two. Rather, I present this as simply two tools you can use to achieve the same protection. I keep referring to AnonAddy first because I’m listing them in alphabetical order.

The Services

AnonAddy and SimpleLogin are both email forwarding services. Having an account allows you to create an email address – such as “f9f24233-d80b-4e17-a689-b7f1d0cc04c8@anonaddy.me” or “panguingue_graphostatic@aleeas.com.” These email addresses then forward any mail they receive to the mailbox of your choice, such as thenewoil@protonmail.com. I highly encourage the use of one – or both – of these services or a comparable alternative (these are just the ones I’ve found that are the most feature rich and seem to be rejected less often on most of the sites I use). The practical reason is that for most of us, email is the central hub of our lives. Everything is managed from that one inbox, from newsletters and Netflix marketing emails to doctor’s appointments, job offers, and important correspondence. The compromise of an email account is the digital equivalent of getting kicked out of your own house. If your email address gets exposed in a data breach – which it certainly will if it hasn’t already – that’s half of the required login exposed, leaving only the password to be guessed for access. This can be mitigated by using strong, unique passwords and two-factor authentication, but the exposure of an email address can still be used in other ways, such as tracking you across the various accounts and websites, leading to stalking by both individuals and companies.

The Good

Both services offer a free tier with premium, paid features. AnonAddy offers Lite ($12/year or $1/month) and Pro ($48/year or $4/month) paid plans, while SimpleLogin offers only a single Premium paid plan for $30/year (or $4/month). In addition, both offer F-Droid apps, as well as Play Store and App Store apps, allowing you to create masked addresses on the go. Both allow you to import your public PGP key, both support the use of custom domains, and both allow catch-all email addresses (meaning if I make up an email address on the spot, that email address will be created and forwarded to me as soon as the first email is sent without any interaction from me). AnonAddy offers you the option to replace email subjects (so that the true subject isn’t visible (a shortcoming of PGP). SimpleLogin supports hardware security keys (like Yubikey) and offers browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox, and Safari. SimpleLogin also offers enterprise solutions if you happen to be responsible for a company.

The Bad

AnonAddy’s apps are fan-made and not officially supported. AnonAddy also has a limited number of custom domains, a limited amount of bandwidth (except for the Pro plan), and a limited number of email addresses you can receive to. The bandwidth thing is probably not an issue for most people, but keep in mind that if your bandwidth is exceeded that means they won’t forward any emails for you for the rest of the month. The bigger issue to me is the limited number of emails you can send and receive – 20/50. While most people probably don’t send 50 or even 20 emails in a single month, it’s something to be aware of if you’re a power user. The drawbacks of SimpleLogin are that it is less feature-rich than AnonAddy (can’t change the email subject, can’t disable catch-all). SimpleLogin’s free tier is also much more restrictive than AnonAddy’s (can’t use PGP, 1 recipient to AnonAddy’s 2). But they do make up for it by offering unlimited bandwidth and unlimited reply/send even on the free tier.

Final Verdict

I use both of these services, and honestly I find them almost identical. Being that I consider a custom domain to be a valuable part of a privacy strategy, I think the average user could get away with AnonAddy’s Lite tier ($12/year, $1/month), but SimpleLogin’s Premium will be the better bang for the buck for power users with all the unlimited features. Neither service is bad and they really come down to what you want or need out of them and the price you’re willing to pay for those features you want. I’ve found both to be extremely user friendly and affordable, and I use them pretty interchangeably myself. I encourage you to explore their pricing options for yourself, and maybe even sign up for a free account for both to decide which is best for you.

You can check out AnonAddy’s Pricing here and SimpleLogin’s Pricing here and sign up for each service at their respective websites. If you decide to sign up with SimpleLogin, please consider using my affiliate link. I will not see any information about you, but I will get a few bucks added to my SimpleLogin account if you purchase a paid plan, which means more money I can put toward other The New Oil-related projects. Of course, I understand that not everyone is a fan of affiliate links, so no hard feelings if you choose not to use it. The important thing is that you use one of these services and start protecting yourself.

You can find more recommended services and programs at TheNewOil.xyz. You can also get daily privacy news updates at @thenewoil@freeradical.zone or support my work on Liberapay.

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