Lessons in Disasters and Redundancy

I live in Central Texas. While this is not something I parade around typically, I’m pretty sure this is something I’ve mentioned before. This week, in case you didn’t hear, my state got bombarded with days of below-freezing temperature which put unprecedented stress on our power grid. Between that and political ineptitude, long story short: I went 60+ hours with no power and another 73 (at the time of this editing) after that without heat. My apartment never peaked above 45 degrees Fahrenheit until today (it went to a whopping 48). Good times. Only emergency services had power for about four days. Fortunately someone close to me quickly regained power (as they shared a circuit with emergency services) and I was able to go stay with them and get warm and get internet. This is also why there was a two day gap in my article sharing this week and why I’m currently playing catch-up. Sorry.

During the course of this week, I found many things I wish I had done differently, some of them privacy/security related and some not. I will, of course, be skipping the non-privacy related stuff because this is not a disaster-prep website/blog and it serves no purpose here. However, I did want to share the privacy-related stuff that I learned this week. The fact is that we will all almost certainly be faced with some kind of major disaster in our lives if we haven’t already. Whether that’s a winter storm that almost threatens to kill you while your politicians flee to Cancun, or whether that’s a more localized house fire, we will all face something that dramatically alters our lives and affects us, so it’s important to think now about how we can plan for those disasters and avoid or mitigate them now while we still have time. During this snowstorm it was too late for me to buy chains for my tires, but some of the other steps I’ve taken did actually come in handy. So this week, I’m gonna walk through my some of my experiences this week and discuss some of the privacy steps I took that helped me and some that I wish I had taken beforehand. My hope is that this helps you evaluate your own practices and decide which ones might cause problems and how to handle that or adjust accordingly.

SIM Data

It began for us at 2 am local time on Monday morning. We know this because we were woken by every fire alarm in the apartment going off in our pitch-black apartment. Our apartment literally gets zero light at night, so we have a few nightlights to help us navigate after dark for things like bathroom or kitchen. So based on the level of darkness, we deduced the power was out. We quickly took the batteries out of the smoke alarms, ensured there was no actual fire, and went back to bed. At the time we had been warned of possible rolling blackouts so we didn’t think much of it. Then we woke up in the morning and things got bad. Power was still out. We quickly piled blankets on the bed and began to trap all the heat we could in the room. We have a ball python, who we quickly moved into a shoebox and put under the covers so she could stay warm with us. As I write this story, I realize that this is where the first major lesson comes in: SIM data.

I long for a world where my phone doesn’t spy on me, and in many cases I’ve considered just not having a phone altogether. Well, after this week, that fantasy is out the window. When the power died, so did the internet, which meant that I would’ve had zero communication with the outside world to know what was happening, why I had no power, when to expect it, or eventually where to go for reprieve. So I guess my lesson here isn’t “you must have a cell phone,” but I do think you should have cell data handy if possible. Maybe have an emergency prepaid SIM card in your closet that you can quickly toss into your phone if the power goes down. It’s important to have a way to communicate with the world if the internet is not accessible.

Cash

The next thing we did right was cash. As the temperatures began to plummet, it quickly became obvious that our only choice was to lay in bed and be warm. As such we began to eat less, because our choices were “stay in bed and stay warm” or “freeze over and eat then warm back up.” This resulted in us eating less both in volume and frequency. I visibly lost weight in just the couple days we didn’t eat. When the worst of the storm was over and the stores began to reopen, they didn’t have power and they were running cash only. Well fortunately, one disaster-prep thing I have done is to have an envelope safely stashed in my apartment with emergency cash. This meant that when the stores reopened, I didn’t need an ATM. I had cash ready to go down and shop. I know this probably isn’t healthy but due to the circumstances when we did eat, we wanted to eat things that were ready-to-eat, light, and easy to eat. This meant canned soups, protein bars, Pop Tarts, and pretty much anything else that was quick and easy. I often preach on my site to use cash. Well, this is a time when having cash on hand was king.

Self-hosting

The first thing that went wrong was Nextcloud. I self-host my own Nextcloud server in my home, which meant from the moment I woke up on Monday I was dead in the water. This is not a critical thing in my case, but I remember wanting to take notes about things that we should buy or do to help this situation in the future as it came to me and realizing that I didn’t have that option since my server was down.

Direct Communication

Around day 2 was when the first day I heard rumors that the power grid might fail completely and that cell towers might be next on the chopping block. Fortunately these rumors turned out to be untrue, but this was when my next privacy failure came to light: I had failed to find a peer-to-peer messenger in case the cell towers ever went down. Unfortunately at this time I don’t have a solution for this. I’ve been told that Briar is P2P, but it’s Android and Desktop only, so as an iOS user that doesn’t do me any freaking good. I experimented with another app called Jami but it appears to require cell data. I’m currently on the prowl for a good solution there. I’m still not sure if this would serve any purpose. I suppose if my message can bounce far enough then maybe I could get an outsider to relay news to me, but really this doesn’t serve much purpose other than to make sure my partner safely got to the car to get warm. Either way, this is something that’s now on my radar more than before.

Knowing the Neighbors

Another personal weakness of mine that fell through the cracks was getting to know my neighbors. Personal networking coach Jordan Harbinger has a phrase: “dig your well before you’re thirsty.” Getting to know your neighbors is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it provides great security and community. Neighbors who know you can be asked for favors, like “Hey we’re going out of town, can you keep an eye on our place for burglars?” or – potentially in our case – “hey do you have any firewood?” On the other hand, getting to know your neighbors can potentially be a privacy risk, and trying to make up an entirely fake persona or name with them can be very difficult for some. For me, I’m simply an introvert. As long as I had a computer and internet, I never saw a need to get to know my neighbors. I’m not sure knowing my neighbors would’ve actually helped in this case, but I don’t think it could’ve hurt and it’s something I’d like to experiment more with in the future.

Privacy Was Not Paramount

The most important thing that stuck out to me was that privacy didn’t matter. I didn’t have the VPN on my phone for days so that I could maximize battery life and get notifications in a timely manner. I used my SIM card number to make phone calls to – again – save battery and maximize efficiency. Not to be dramatic, but this was literally a life-or-death experience. At least a handful of people in our area did die from hypothermia, at least one of which was not homeless from what I understand. Several more died in house fires trying to keep their homes warm and others died from carbon monoxide poisoning. The last thing I gave a f*ck about was privacy at that moment.

This may seem anathema to some. There are some serious privacy extremists out there who treat privacy as the end-all be-all, more important than gold or convenience or family or even job opportunities. In some cases and instances, that may not be a bad call. I’d rather give up a mediocre job opportunity that doesn’t respect my privacy so I can get another mediocre one that does. I’d also rather cut out a relatively crappy friend who won’t use Signal than keep them on SMS. However, there is a line. That line varies from person to person – which is a blog I plan to post another day – but there comes a point where you have to put privacy aside and be a functional, decent human being. I hope you never face a life-or-death situation that forces you to make that call, but you will probably be faced with choices in your privacy journey that make you pick between X and privacy. And sometimes, it’s worth it. Again, I’m not here to tell you where that line is. Privacy is a human right. But so is heat and food and water. Don’t get carried away with privacy to a toxic degree.

Conclusion

As I said before, this was a learning experience for me. I firmly believe that everything in life – or nearly everything – is a learning experience if you let it be. I hope you’ll learn from my experience and find ways to harden your own private life and prepare for the worst. One resource I recently added to my site that I found helpful in the area of preparing your digital life for redundancy is The Personal Digital Resilience Handbook. That might be a good place to start if this is new to you. Either way, take this time to examine what the shortcomings in your privacy and security strategies are and how you can patch those up now before the snowstorms hit.

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.