The Daʿish of the computer world has arrived. This week, LeMonde.fr postulated “Le virus « Regin », un outil de cyberespionnage développé par un Etat.” Mysterious, dangerous, this virus can do anything from shutting down nuclear facilities to sniffing out your credit card details. Do we need to be scared and, more importantly, we need to ask ourselves if we are really that helpless in front of these challenges? Big Data, NSA, Regin virus – haven’t we lost all cyber-agency already?
By Christoph Trost
Quite the contrary: the cyberspace is precisely the place to regain agency, to reclaim what’s lost. But what have we actually lost? We can open 43 tabs in three browser windows, google can show us which obscure places you’ve signed in from lately and soon we won’t even need to order from Amazon any more – Amazon will start anticipatory shipping to send you things before you even think of ordering them. Cyber-life is cosy and comfortable, isn’t it? Aren’t the losses small compared to such marvellous gains?
If you instead find these developments rather disturbing, then it’s time to take action and look behind the nice clean façade of http:// and html. Most of you can imagine that a lot of stuff happens to the tap water before it reaches your shower. That’s a good start. Even though tab does not equal tap the same holds true for your browser and data.
The most important maxim: nothing is accidental. For example, the fact that all links in this article open in a new tab and don’t refresh on this page is the web-administrator’s choice, for example. Similarly, we know here at lezadig.com that 40% of you have a Macbook and that 7% of you readers access our website through Sciences Po’s wifi, probably even in class.
How do we know all this? The crux is “scripts”. Whenever you access a website, any website, there are lots of little crawlers and programs in the background that do something. Some connect you automatically to Facebook, so whatever you do on this website is linked to your account. Some tell the administrator about a good deal of your behaviour (e.g., that you spent on average 4 minutes on Vukasin’s article).
The point is, there’s no need to feel helpless, there’s no need to give up and surrender. It’s not a Daʿish-like threat, just scripts. We can easily regain our independence. If we’re able to discuss such grandes questions as making peace in the Middle East, we should at least understand the interface on which this discussion is happening.
And it isn’t rocket science either. There are plenty of browser add-ons against scripts. Ghostery, for example, is a simple plugin that allows you to see and turn off all the crawlers that want your behaviour patterns. NoScript works similarly.
From breaking into your online banking account to finding out your political opinions – you can protect yourself against most threats. The word protection in the context of NSA spying is perhaps misleading. True, if they want to spy, they can spy but at least you can make it harder for TEMPORA and the like to break into your system. At least you can get close to anonymity:
Use tor if you want to do some search operations you’re not too proud of. Or search with Startpage instead of Google – the results are more or less the same but Startpage does not record your searches and hence does not know your most private concerns. A search query for “menstruation delay” tells quite a bit to Google, Amazon, your network administrator and other nosy peers in your wifi network. Or, if you’re paranoid as the public enemy number 1 try, out tails – an entire operating system that suits your needs. Moreover, Email-encryption is becoming easier. OR simply just watch out that all sites with sensitive data use https and not http.
Or perhaps you want to check what the last Apple OS update did to your iWhatever? Or you still think your facebook newsfeed is a random collection of stuff your friends post? Find out, and try this experiment: like everything you encounter and see what happens to your facebook account.
The new super-virus, Regin, proves that it’s fatal short-sightedness of a social science student to think “I don’t care about stupid IT-questions, I’m here for higher, more abstract thinking.” IT-relations determine politics already. The big question of which government built this super virus will bring IT to the forefront of politics. Don’t miss out on it! A good start would be Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept. After all, even a high-ranking NATO official predicted recently that “the next major Nato crisis is likely to be cyber-driven”.
More nosy governments, more malware and more data centres. What do they all want from you? Your data – because that’s the new currency. And if you don’t want to sell yourself, you can chose not to. It takes some time and, yes, you might have to slightly alter your habits. But it’s possible, even if the new super virus Regin should already be on your computer .