Book Review: Extreme Privacy: What It Takes to Disappear (2nd Edition) by Michael Bazzell
I’m going to lay my cards on the table and admit to my bias: I really like Bazzell and I hold him in fairly high regard. Bazzel was the person who introduced me to privacy, and I “cut my teeth” on his work. His podcast and his earlier (now out of print) “The Complete Privacy & Security Desk Reference: Vol 1” introduced me to why privacy matters, how to go about reclaiming your privacy, the concept that there are levels to privacy, and even the idea that not every level is right for everyone. I was sad when I missed Volume 2 of the desk reference, so I was pretty excited when this new revamped book came out. Fortunately by the time I had committed to buying it, the second edition was on the horizon, so I just went ahead and waited.
Well last night I finished the book, and so in keeping with the vision of my site, I’ve decided to go ahead and share my thoughts.
About the Author & the Book
Michael Bazzell describes his his credentials in relatively vague terms (which makes sense given his work), but they are impressive nonetheless. He claims a long career in law enforcement, including cyber crimes. After retiring from the force, he became a privacy consultant and even worked on Season 1 of the acclaimed TV show Mr Robot. His work on that show catapulted him into celebrity circles and he now spends his time as a full-time consultant helping people disappear from stalkers, hackers, doxxers, and more. He also conducts live training and speaks at events.
Extreme Privacy is Bazzell’s latest (relatively) comprehensive collection of his own knowledge and experience. The book takes readers through Bazzell’s process that he would go through upon being contacted by a client who needs a “full reboot.” In other words, pretend someone needed to completely disappear from a very advanced enemy who has resources to spare, and now pretend you’re along for the ride. The book is not about basic cybersecurity or good social media habits, although it does cover those topics.
This book is incredibly thorough. I can’t state that enough. The book clocks in at just over 550 pages, and every page is jammed with ideas, strategies, instructions, and examples. There’s no fluff or padding to speak of. It also covers situations that, in my opinion, one wouldn’t normally think of. For example, there’s an entire chapter about pet adoption.
I also found the book to be pretty easy to grasp in most situations. Bazzell talks as if he’s having a discussion with another privacy enthusiast. He knows his audience. He doesn’t dumb things down as if talking to grandma, but at the same time he doesn’t get lost in the super technical details as if hew was talking to a programmer. He keeps things – for the most part – at a pretty average level where a typical competent computer user can grasp what he’s talking about.
Another thing I appreciated about the book – and Bazzell in general – is his consistent “sanity checks.” Basically, every so often, especially when he just finished outlining a particularly extreme strategy, Bazzell will make a point of saying that this is an extreme idea and may not be applicable to everyone. He encourages his readers to consider their own unique situation and whether the work involved in each strategy is worth the payoff. He also warns that some of his strategies may have unintended negative consequences and reminds readers that not everything is right for everyone. As someone who shares that sentiment – that there is no “one size fits all,” – I really appreciate that approach.
The book can sometimes be a little bit too thorough. While I appreciate Bazzell’s desire to leave no stone unturned, I felt my eyes glaze over on a lot of parts where he gives example legal documents or describes step-by-step installation instructions or occasionally repeats himself (again, purposely in a desire to be thorough). By the end of the book, I found myself skipping certain parts or skimming them. For example, he’s got several pages about how to install and configure a PfSense firewall. PfSense is not my firewall of choice (although there’s nothing wrong it), so I skimmed those pages. If I ever do decide to use PfSense, I can always go back and check his instructions again for a detailed walkthrough.
It also sometimes feels to me as if the thoroughness is a bit disproportionate. For example, when discussing how to get a car anonymously, Bazzell walks through several scenarios and often repeats himself to be thorough. However, early in the book, he decides that his example state of residence is going to be South Dakota, despite Texas (and I think Florida) also meeting his requirements. He does not offer the same thoroughness if you decided to use one of those states for residency. To his defense though, the steps and laws are always subject to change quickly, so even using South Dakota one should make sure to consult current information and not rely solely on his book.
Finally, while his book does occasionally mention money as a factor, it is clearly aimed at people who have relatively large amounts of disposable income. For example, when talking about a home network and setting up a VPN and firewall on the router, he instantly zeroes in on the Protectli firewall, a solution that starts at $150 on the low end (not bad) but can quickly max out at $1600. That can be a high price tag for some people. (The more reasonable packages land in the mid hundreds, but still.) He does mention that you can opt for a different router and flash the firmware yourself, but he offers very little explanation of which firmware he suggests or what to look for in a home router, leaving the reader to wonder if there’s any less expensive options out there and which ones. This is, honestly, kind of nitpicking but it does seem like a bit of an oversight for such a thorough book, and it’s pretty clear from reading it that he’s used to working with clients who have, at the very least, a relatively high budget.
I would consider this book a must-read for anyone who’s interested in privacy beyond the average “I don’t want my ex cyberstalking my Facebook.” This book is deep, but it’s designed for people who need their privacy. Police, government employees, people who are concerned they might have or someday get a stalker, people who have controversial jobs or opinions and want to keep their families safe. I hesitate to call this book a must-read for everyone because it is so in-depth and over-the-top, but if you are interested in privacy I think it would be good to have on hand. You can always ignore the parts that don’t apply to you, or come back to them later. Personally I put about a dozen sticky notes on various pages that contained information I knew I would almost certainly come back to at a later date for various reasons.
More on the Book
You can purchase the book here. Bazzell also has a blog and a podcast, as well as live events and additional books. You can find all of them on the website I linked.