Originally published on The Establishment and republished here with permission.
We’ve entered a new era with the election of Donald Trump, and activists, intellectuals, and scientists will need to become more aware over the coming months of the safety and security of their electronic communications.
Trump has made no secret, after all, of his willingness and ability to lash out against those who criticize him or his policies, and this threat could become more serious, widespread, and dangerous now that he’s taken office.
In some ways, protecting ourselves digitally in the Trump era will be the same as protecting ourselves in any other era, since good digital practices are important no matter who’s in power or what’s happening in the larger political sphere.
The free speech threats under Trump, however, could well be greater than anything we’ve experienced in the past.
Whether he’s shouting down CNN’s Jim Acosta or tweeting retaliatory falsehoods about a truth-speaking union leader, Trump is eager to use whatever means are at his disposal to attack those who dare speak against him.
And as president, he’ll have plenty of methods of attacking everyday citizens – including an FBI that seems bent on supporting him and his policies, no matter how unconstitutional they may be.
For many of us, the more Trump tries to shut us down, the more forcefully we’ll want to speak up, but there might also be times when we want to be a little more under-the-radar, for the protection of our careers, families, and lives.
It can’t hurt, therefore, to be aware of ways to secure our digital communications.
With all of that in mind, here are three tips for protecting yourself digitally in the Trump era.
1. Use Social Media Wisely
Social media platforms are great for organizing and communicating, giving us the ability to share news, petitions, and ideas with people far and wide.
Facebook groups, for instance, have been key to mobilizing people in the aftermath of the election, and we’ll need to keep using these platforms to connect with others and amplify our own voices.
“It’s imperative to keep multiple loud, accessible channels of resistance and political organizing going,” said Hadassah Damien, a nonprofit and grassroots technologist with the Participatory Budgeting Project.
At the same time, however, we must understand that social media is designed to track and monitor its users.
And while, until now, those tracking and monitoring features have been employed primarily by social media companies to target ads, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how they could be wielded more widely by governmental agencies gathering data about citizens.
Marking posts as private and only joining private groups is one way to protect yourself, and it makes sense to take at least these steps. Even if the groups you join on Facebook are marked “private,” however, Facebook knows you’re in them. And Facebook could be called upon to release that information.
“Facebook has an interest in keeping the data on their servers safe from hackers,” said Damien. “However, they’re also known to comply with data requests from the federal government.”
All of this shouldn’t necessarily have a chilling effect on what we do on social media.
We must, however, be conscious of how, and where, and when we use these platforms, and we need to understand that everything we do on them is open and visible – even when it feels private.
We have to weigh the real, tangible benefits of belonging to public groups and liking political pages on Facebook, for instance, against the likely possibility that people and agencies – including the federal government – are tracking our involvement.
One option is to use alternative, decentralized, and encrypted social media platforms, such as Diaspora and GNU Social, which can work well for small groups of friends or activists who want to have a relatively secure platform for communicating, sharing information, and making plans.
With whatever platforms we use, experts emphasize that we need to understand what data the platforms are gathering and how they’re using it, and that might mean paying attention to the fine print.
“For any communication medium, I would look into the organization’s data security terms of service,” said Damien. “How will they share data? Will they share data if there is a subpoena? Do they use end-to-end encryption? Do they keep logs? If there is no use log or IP address logs, there’s nothing to turn over or record that kind of activity.”
In its data policy, for instance, Facebook explicitly states that it “may access, preserve and share your information in response to a legal request (like a search warrant, court order, or subpoena) if we have a good faith belief that the law requires us to do so.”
It also makes clear that it will release personal data at the request of the government:
Information we receive about you, including financial transaction data related to purchases made with Facebook, may be accessed, processed, and retained for an extended period of time when it is the subject of a legal request or obligation, governmental investigation, or investigations concerning possible violations of our terms or policies, or otherwise to prevent harm.
Until recently, we’ve tended to trust that our government would only request such information if it were truly warranted.
Now, though, we have a federal government that can’t be trusted to act ethically or within reason, and we need to manage our data and information accordingly.
This doesn’t necessarily mean not using social media. It just means we need to understand that we’re probably being watched, and the people watching us might not have our best interests – or the interests of democracy – at heart.
2. Secure Your Calls and Texts
If you’re looking to secure your phone calls and text messages, you could use a “burner” or prepaid phone to protect your communications.
Or you might consider using an app like Open Whisper Systems’ Signal. This is a free service, available for both iOS and Android, that offers end-to-end encryption of voice and text communications.
Unlike traditional voice and text applications, Signal encrypts all data, so that no one – even Open Whisper Systems itself – can overhear your conversations.
Signal is supported by volunteers who value safety and security. As the organization’s site says:
Open Whisper Systems is both a large community of volunteer Open Source contributors, as well as a small team of dedicated grant-funded developers. Together, we’re working to advance the state of the art for secure communication, while simultaneously making it easy for everyone to use.
Whether you’re talking with other activists to organize a protest or texting with friends about what you’re doing on a Friday night, Signal is a good option to prevent others from listening in.
For Signal to be truly effective, though, the people you’re communicating with also need to use the service. It’s essentially useless unless your friends are also on board.
So talk with people you know, or even send them a link to this article. Discuss the value of using Signal at political meetings or protests. A little benevolent peer pressure, after all, can go a long way towards making communications more secure for all of us.
3. Employ a VPN
One of the most important ways to protect the privacy and security of your digital communications is to use a virtual private network, or VPN.
A VPN allows for sending and receiving data across shared and public networks as if you’re using a private network. It’s a more secure way to access the Internet, both at home and in the broader world.
If you’re tech-savvy, you can run your own VPN service with open-source software like OpenVPN, or you can subscribe to one of many commercial services, such as Hotspot Shield, Nord VPN, PureVPN, or IPVanish.
I’ve been using TunnelBear, and I’ve found that it’s especially easy to use and set up. After you purchase a subscription and download the app onto your devices, it runs quietly in the background. You don’t need to think about it at all.
The benefit of using a VPN is that it encrypts your browsing and other Internet activity from anyone who might want to monitor it. This kind of encryption is particularly important when using public wifi, but it can also be useful when using your own home wifi network.
When choosing a VPN, you’ll want to examine the safety and security of the network you’re using, and make sure that you’re comfortable with what you’re sharing with the VPN provider.
As the Electronic Freedom Foundation notes on its Surveillance Self-Defense site, most commercial VPNs require you to pay using a credit card, “which includes information about you that you may not want to divulge to your VPN provider. If you would like to keep your credit card number from your commercial VPN provider, you may wish to use a VPN provider that accepts Bitcoin, or use temporary or disposable credit card numbers.
Also, please note that the VPN provider may still collect your IP address when you use their service, which can be used to identify you, even if you use an alternative payment method. If you’d like to hide your IP address from your VPN provider, you may wish to use Tor when connecting to your VPN.”
Employing a VPN offers another layer of safety and security to your communications, and it makes it that much less likely that anyone will be able to spy on what you’re doing, thinking, saying, and planning.
It might seem paranoid to worry so much about the safety and security of communications under a Trump administration, but we live in a WikiLeaks world, and we’ve all seen what hackers can do when they put their minds to it.
It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that the FBI surveillance of the McCarthy era could soon be multiplied a hundredfold for us, here at the 21st-century intersection of digital technology and dictatorial government.
Ultimately, protecting speech is a deeply political act, and it’s something we’ll want to do if we value our freedom.
Clear and unfettered communication is vital to a functioning democracy, after all, and protecting our personal privacy is just one way to make sure that those lines of communication stay open.
For more tips and advice about secure communications, check out the following sites:
Electronic Freedom Foundation: The Electronic Freedom Foundation provides a wealth of support, information, and help for people wanting to protect the privacy of their communications. Check out its Surveillance Self-Defense site for quick and easy digital privacy tips.
A DIY Guide to Feminist Cybersecurity: This site has a range of cybersecurity tips and information, all of it intended, as the site says, to help you “take control of your digital spaces.”
Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Narratively, The Manifest-Station, The Establishment, The Rumpus, Creative Nonfiction, and other publications. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington), and a poetry collection, The Village (Kelsay Books). For more information, visit her website at www.vivianwagner.net.