How to protect yourself online, no matter your security needs

Almost every week, it seems that there is some kind of major security breach. Whether celebrity nudesthe social security numbers of the majority of Americans, or a Bitcoin heist, it seems that our private data is under constant attack.

The Internet and your co-workers are full of advice: put a sticker over your webcamdisable Flash/Java in your browser, encrypt your drives, delete your Facebook account, cover your hand while using the ATM, get a burner phone, pay for everything with cash, start wearing a tinfoil hat to protect against the NSA’s spy rays, etc.

The reality is that as more and more of our lives become digital, information security becomes increasingly important. Many bad things can happen when your privacy is breached: from finding out that you have a boat loan that you didn’t know about to having your naked photos all over the web to being thrown in jail because the government doesn’t approve what you have to say. It’s important to take appropriate measures to protect yourself, but what is appropriate for you really depends on the kind of secrets you have to keep and the kinds of threats you need to protect against.

Let’s consider three people who care about their privacy, and steps they should take to keep their stuff private:

Lisa Monroe

Lisa Monroe lives in Madison, Wisconsin. She is a college student with a part-time job.  She just got her first credit card, and just started going steady with a boyfriend.

Lisa doesn’t have many secrets to keep, but she is worried about fraud to her credit and debit cards and the naughty pics she trades with her boyfriend Brad.

To keep her finances secure, Lisa signed up with the free app WalletHub to keep track of her credit score and uses Clarity Money to monitor her spending and make sure there are no unauthorized charges.

To keep her private photos private, Lisa only sends them using Snapchat, which prevents photos from being saved and notifies her if someone takes a screenshot. She also has enabled a passcode on her iPhone, which she knows is automatically encrypted, so that thieves can’t access her information if it’s lost.

Lisa also uses a password manager, LastPass, which generates a random unique password for every account she keeps so that when the buggy website her college uses is hacked, the stolen passwords can’t be used to login to her bank account.

Andrew Stephens

Andrew Stephens lives in a penthouse facing Central Park in a Manhattan high rise. Andrew was a construction worker when he purchased 1,000 Bitcoins on a whim in 2012. They are now worth $7.2 million, allowing Andrew to massively upgrade his lifestyle. Andrew is obviously worried about the security of his Bitcoin stash, but he’s also concerned about unauthorized transactions on his American Express Platinum card from that club he gets bottle service at. He likes to go diving in Cabo San Lucas and doesn’t want his wealth to leak out, lest he is held for ransom.

Like Lisa, Andrew uses WalletHub, LastPass, and has a security code on his iPhone.

To keep his Bitcoin stash secure, Andrew stashes it on a Trezor. He encrypts all MacBook and Time Machine files using FileVault.   He uses multi-factor authentication with LastPass Authenticator to sign in to his email and bank accounts.  To monitor his financial status, he uses Personal Capital, where he tracks spending on all his accounts.   He uses a YubiKey physical security token to log into his MacBook and lock it when he steps away, so that criminals cannot install a keylogger on it when he leaves it at home or in a hotel room.

Andrew is investing in a Hong Kong startup making an ASIC cryptocurrency miner. When he goes to China, he uses a phone and cheap laptop that he keeps just for travelto protect against both Chinese industrial espionage and the TSA. He wipes the phone and laptop clean just before boarding his flight back to the USA.

Andrew’s home is protected by a home security system with remote cameras he can access anytime.

Zhao Gong

Zhao Gong Li lives in Beijing, China. She works as a lawyer who represents people defending themselves against government-backed property development companies who try to take their family plots without proper compensation. She is worried about the local police ransacking her home to find or plant incriminating evidence as well as spying on her Internet activity to spy on her communications with her clients. Zhao is helping a European NGO to produce a documentary about illegal land seizures in China and does not want the government to find out about her involvement.  She also needs to access the Internet outside China’s firewall for her research.

Zhao’s router is an RT-AC86U router running the Asuswrt-Merlin custom firmware. Whenever she wants to go online, she firsts connects her router to a private VPN service that she pays for with Bitcoin. Zhao keeps all her data on an external hard drive that she encrypts with VeraCrypt. She copies the hard drive at her friend’s apartment once a month in case it is confiscated, and keeps it in her purse at all times. Zhao has a Windows laptop, but the operating system on it is just a decoy used for personal entertainment. She has a tiny encrypted Ubuntu Linux USB flash drive in her makeup case that is her work operating system.

Zhao’s web browser has the extensions HTTPS Everywhere, AdBlock, and ScriptSafeto protect against malicious websites hijacking her computer. She covers up her webcam and the microphone port on her computer.  When she visits her clients, she turns off her smartphone and uses a burner phone with an anonymous sim card she replaces monthly from a street vendor.   Like Andrew and Edward Snowden, Zhao uses the Signal for messaging.

As you can see, your security needs depend on the threats you need to protect against.  Find a balance between security and convenience that is appropriate for your life.  Trying to implement too many security measures will create a lot of extra work and frustration and tempt you (or your kids or employees) to bypass the protections entirely.  Nevertheless, there are some common steps that apply to everyone.  Use a device that is encrypted by default (such as the iPhone) with a long passcode.  Use a password manager to avoid reusing passwords.  Don’t share confidential information (or photos) with people who you don’t trust.    Monitor your financial status.  A few simple steps will protect from becoming yet another victim of the most common online security threats.

Originally published on

Why I welcome our job-stealing machine overlords

There is a growing sense of alarm that machines will soon cause everyone to lose their jobs.

The worry is that  increasing automation of everything from assembly lines to the service industry will make most jobs unnecessary.   Even more dramatically, futurists claim that investment in the tech industry is specifically focused on technologies likely to replace the most jobs, as automation offers the quickest and biggest return on investment, and so we are entering a vicious loop in which capital earned from automation fuels further automation, until it destroys all human employment.  Furthermore, economists claim that this trend is well underway, and blame it for the erosion of the middle class.

Pretty soon, there won’t be any jobs left for us humans, just a few super-rich capitalists, and a mass of unemployed workers.  One solution offered is a universal basic income, which guarantees a basic standard of living to everyone, and makes employment optional.

There a few factual problems with this view. For one, the middle class is shrinking because Americans are getting richer, not poorer.  More importantly, global poverty is shrinking to historical lows because of productivity improvements (powered by technology) in developing countries.  Global poverty it is set to fall below 10% for the first time ever.  Furthermore, the meaning of “poverty” keeps changing: people used to be pretty happy if any of their children lived to adulthood.   Many poor Americans buy coffee at StarBucks. Furthermore, history shows that improvements in technology have made our poorest richer than the richest American of the 18th century.

More importantly, predictions of technological unemployment miss the relationships between technological innovation and human life.  This goes beyond the Luddite fallacy that technology has not historically increased unemployment.

In fact, I do believe that mass unemployment is one possible (if unlikely) outcome of the kind of innovation in artificial intelligence we are seeing now.  It is different from the historical replacement of manual labor with machines in the past, and may have vastly different, and negative outcomes on human life.   However, we need to understand the underlying trends rather than fight progress or call for governments to save us.

Automation causes complex and widespread changes in our world, so I want to concretize the process with a personal history of how the machines shaped my own career.   In fact, the machines gave me by first real job.

I graduated with a double major in political science and economics a decade ago.   I learned too late that my lack of any other skills or social connections left me ill prepared for a real job.

I was not good at anything really, except my student worker job of tech support, which I mastered through my ability to type user’s questions into Google Search.  I had never taken a programming class beyond the 101, but I liked coding and decided to try it as a career.

Two things, or rather two algorithms made it possible for me to jump into a software career without any training: Microsoft IntelliSense and Google Search.

IntelliSense (to simplify for non-developers) is a feature which types code for you based on what the software things you are trying to do.  The feature added to Microsoft Visual Studio.Net in 2001 had introspection and documentation features that allowed a total beginner like me to immediately write powerful business systems (still in use today).  In addition to IntelliSense, Google allowed me to find example of pretty much any feature I needed to build.

While many people have taken up trades without any education or training, in my case at least, it was two algorithms which lowered the learning curve sufficiently to jump start my career.

A generation earlier, object-oriented and functional languages created a path for programmers who did not have the aptitude for assembly programing (working with low-level machine code).  A few generations before, there were punch cards, and before that, only geniuses who understood the electro-mechanical systems could work with computers.  Reliance on ever powerful and user-friendly tools continuously expands the pool of people who use machines in their work.  Eventually, programmers might talk in natural language to computers to tell them what they want and pure coders will be obsoleted, but it will also be true that the machines will make their jobs possible to.

But automation did much more for me than making me a more productive programmer.

By relying on my talents with the AND OR and NOT Google search operators, I rose in the ranks to a software architect — directing teams of engineers in distributed teams around the world to build software according to my directions.  One project involved 25 people in the USA, Germany, Canada, China, Singapore, Thailand, India and other far-flung places.  The machines made it possible with weekly team videoconferencing, instant messaging, and the latest project management platform.  We were a distributed startup working with other globally distributed startups.  Not only was my team’s labor distributed, but we took virtually all of our code from the open source community, using the combined intelligence of millions of contributors enabled by collaboration platforms. The majority of our work consisted of finding the right gears to make our machine work.

When I related this story to a Trump supporter recently, he berated me for taking programming jobs away from “hard working Americans.” But that’s not true — with the budget we had, we could not afford one-tenth of a traditional workplace in the US.  Rent for the office space alone would have been larger than our total budget.

Our product could not have existed without the productivity improvement from automation.  The product could not exist with the technology present just a few years earlier.  Whether in distributed or traditional workplaces, machine-aided employees are expected to produce far more value than those of the generation before.  And the bar keeps going up.  In the science-fiction film Her, a company writes personal letters on behalf of their customers.  While fictional, it’s a good example of the kind of decaded pursuits made economically feasible when all the boring jobs are automated.

Our tools keep getting better, lowering the bar for novices to jump on the automation train.  We can talk to our phones to schedule our appointments. Excel now guesses what chart shows off my numbers best.  My spell check tells me when I misuse “there” and “their”. etc.

Yes, as employees aided by machines, we will be expected to be more productive than ever before — and keep doing more after year.  But because we do more, we have more goods and services than ever before.  In monetary terms, Americans incomes are not rising rapidly as developing countries are, but in qualitative terms, we are far richer.  Would you rather have a 1980’s corded phone or an iPhone?  Every product we use (other than those severely constrained by governments, such as pharmaceuticals) is orders of magnitude better.

The trend of product improvement is so consistent that few appreciate how much richer our lives keep getting thanks to automation.   I was born in a tiny farming village in 1980’s Soviet Union.

I remember digging potatoes and weeds during my summer vacation — not because we were farmers, but because that’s what everyone did to supplement their diet.  Only Party officials had cars.  I saw my first computer in the USA when I was 10.

My Apple products do things I read as science fiction as a teenager.  Oh sure — my iPhone won’t take me to the moon (yet), but then 1960’s tech could only get a few men there, and now I can tour it in my underwear in glorious virtual reality with a cheap Google Cardboard. My favorite foods — aged Spanish Manchego, fresh organic blueberries, coconut ice cream – I buy cheaply from Costco every week – luxuries not available to Rothchilds and Rockefellers a hundred years ago.

Yes, the disruption will continue, and accelerate.  Education will become a self-motivated lifelong process instead of 16 years of “critical thinking” worksheets.  There will be no guarantees that your job won’t be replaced by the machines.  Many people will be unable to keep up or adapt and will end up economically marginalized (more on that later).  But at the same time, the machines are making many jobs lot easier and more productive.  Entry-level McDonalds jobs will be for remote tele-operators who handle customer complaints when one of their 100+ restaurants overcooks the vat-grown filet mignon.

What happens if the machines become better at everything and make human jobs obsolete?

For anyone who has a even a minuscule slice of that economy, the benefits are unimaginable. We will live our lives doing what we enjoy rather than working to afford the necessities of life.

There is nothing inherently heroic about a human being spending his life working in a factory or office bent over a screen or conveyor belt for 50 years.  Whether white or blue collar, most jobs are terrible for our health and personal development compared to what an optimal human lifestyle could be.

So here is my personal strategy for securing my own  slice of a human-optional economy:

First, I am learning Data Science, so that instead of a code monkey, I will learn to manage herds of AI algorithms, whose job it is to make sense of quintillions of data points.  The machines are much faster with numbers than I am, but humans are still required to ask the right questions.

Second, I am investing in the  global economy.  If one day, the AI’s become smarter than we are, and they don’t decide to use humans for construction material, they will be integrated into a global economy trillions of times richer than ours.  My tiny stake of ownership in that future economy might be larger than the total economy of today.  And because I am human being, if I see starving, jobless people on the streets, I will help them out.

Even if I don’t make it to that happy future, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, and many more of the world’s richest have pledged virtually all of their legacy to helping humanity.

As long as humans own a share of the future economy, empathy will lead them to share its benefits with everyone.  I for one, welcome our job-stealing machine overlords.

Why no self-driving cars? Blame the politicians

  • The average commute in San Francisco is 32.2 minutes. The employed civilian population is 837,442.
  • There are 251 working days per year, so the average worker spends 16164.4 minutes/11.23 days commuting per year.
  • That is 13,536,747,464.8 minutes – 25,754 years for the Bay Area population per year.
  • Assuming a life expectancy of 80 years, 322 lives are wasted every year due to the commute time in SF.
  • Given an average San Fransisco per capita income of $46,777, the average hourly rate is $23, which means the commute costs San Franciscans alone $5,189,086,528 – five billion dollars.
  • If 100% of the working population adopted self-driving cars then AI convoys and anti-congestion algorithms could reduce the time by at least half, and turn the remaining commute into relaxing/working time.

Consider the lives saved and productivity gained if self-driving cars were adopted by the USA. This does not include the 30-40 thousand people killed and over 2 million injured in car accidents over 90% of which could be prevented by self-driving cars.

The technology for self-driving cars exists now. Google’s self-driving cars have driven millions of accident-free miles. All that’s missing is a few algorithms for snow and other conditions.

That is the potential upside. But you dear reader, know perfectly well that self-driving cars will be delayed by decades because the politicians will not let us. Our legal system is set up in a way that makes it impossible for car makers to innovate because of prohibitive liabilities and regulations intended to ensure our safety, and our nationalized road system blocks innovation in traffic safety.

This is a coordination problem – trillions of dollars and millions of people* will die because our political system prevents markets from satisfying consumer values. The true cost of the inadequacies of our present political system is beyond calculation.

* 3,551,332 people died in car accidents since 1899

Colonize the universe or starve

For 99.99% of the two million years that humans have been around, the entire species lived in harmonious balance with nature — that is, perpetually on the edge of starvation, acquiring the bare minimum of sustenance necessary to sustain the present population.

Every now and then, a change in the environment, a new disease, or perhaps a tribal conflict caused a mass die of some percentage of the population. This provided a rare opportunity for a surplus of food to become available, and the population quickly grew in prosperity and (presumably) happiness until the ecological balance was restored and the state of constant near-starvation returned.

But then — after a few hundred thousand years of building ever complex tools, homo sapiens sapiens was able to sustain a surplus of food production despite unprecedented population growth. Whereas it has previously taken a million years to add an additional million sapiens to the population, now each additional million was added in about a month.

The 200 years following the industrial revolution saw accelerating productivity improvements which led to accelerating capital accumulation, which incredibly, allowed per capita wealth to grow faster than the population, raising the standard of living in industrial countries over a hundred fold.

Now, unless you happened to grow up in a remote Amazonian tribe and then somehow integrated into modern society and managed to read this on Facebook, you have no idea what a “hundred fold improvement in the standard of living” means. You probably went camping, or saw a romantic nature documentary and think that lack of indoor plumbing, having an average of 80% of your children die in infancy, habitually going up to a week without food, being left for dead after major injuries or old age, and lack of Facebook access is not that big of a deal. Maybe it isn’t – I don’t know either.

Anyway, for biological or cultural reasons, we tend to extrapolate our current status of ecological surplus and assume that it will continue indefinitely, despite having experienced it for only .0001% of human history. In fact, economic incentives suggest otherwise: in the long-run, social groups which value higher reproductive rates will eventually dominate the human population and return homo sapiens to subsidence levels. We might still have Facebook, but we’ll be back to perpetually surviving on edge of starvation, save for the brief times after a catastrophe kills of much of the population and we can thrive on the surplus capital.

Any group that values large families will tend to dominate the species given sufficient time. It might be the Mormons, Amish, Hutterites, or probably some new group that places an explicit value on maximizing the reproductive rate at the expense of all other values. Unfortunately, having as many children as biologically possible does not correlate with other values that most of us consider desirable, but that is how ecology works.

Some have suggested population controls, but those would only work with a dictatorial single world government, and those are hard to sustain indefinitely over geological time spans. In other to avoid a return to the state of nature, we must either sustain the present excess of capital growth over population growth indefinitely, or find a way to permanently limit the population size. Since the earth is of finite size, sustaining the surplus capital growth requires the difficult task of colonizing the entire universe. On the other hand, it might be even more difficult to restrict the reproductive rate, given that any group which violates the restriction could gain control over the whole planet.

Are we homo superior?

In response to Brian Cox’s Human Universe presents a fatally flawed view of evolution:


Are human beings superior to all other animals? Can homo sapiens be said to be at the “top” of the evolutionary tree, rather than just another iteration? To answer this question, one must identify some universal criteria, rather than a species-dependent one. (For example, an obviously species-subjective perspective might be that human women are the best-looking.)

The current mainstream view seems to be that this is impossible. It is therefore wrong to say that humans are “more advanced” because we have space stations, because space stations are only important to humans. Dolphins might blow beautiful bubbles and they are just important to dolphins, while giraffes value having the longest neck as the most valuable aspect of an animal. To me, this view (that many philosophers and biologists actually believe) is absurd.

I think there are some obvious essential instrumental skills which make humans special. These essential instrumental skills are universal in that they enable the achievement of many other goals. Reasoning, technology, and social organization are important not because they are important to homo sapiens, but because they are essential to a wide range of value achievement as such. If lions learned how to domesticate and breed gazelle, they would still be achieving a lion’s values, but they would do so using a superior, more energy efficient process. This applies especially to human ability to contextually transform the environment at large scale to support higher population – an instrumental skill held by no other species.

In fact, humans exceed the intellectual abilities of all other species by orders of magnitude – a fact that some biologists mislead about when presenting science to the public because they think this view serves either their personal interests or the species they praise.

To the extent that our biology has enabled these instrumental skills, we can indeed say that the human line “ascended” the evolutionary ladder.