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An investigative reporter has changed his tech habits after what he has learned (nytimes.com)
152 points by CapitalistCartr 53 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 68 comments

Terrible clickbait title, at least the actual article mentions Facebook so you have some idea of what it's about.

I found it kind of funny towards the bottom when he said:

>We’re a pretty analog family. Aside from the requisite phones, laptops and iPad, I don’t have a lot of gear.

We've gotten to point where if all you have is smartphones, laptops, and tablets, you're considered pretty "analog".

He also has a Google nest (which is slightly upper class tech) and a google home -- even if it is in one room.

That's insane.

In my EU country, pretty much everyone of age 18-65 has a smartphone and a laptop, and that's it.

Tablets, e-readers, smart watches, and digital cameras are not popular, and home assistants are pretty much non-existent.

TVs are rarely watched at home anymore, apart from the live sport events a few hours per week.

Yet, nobody considers himself very analog or very digital, and almost everyone feels like he has all the tech he really needs.

The lack of large suburban areas might be the main reason for this. Most people are either busy in the city, or in the nature with each other.

IMO digital cameras are not "tech" they are "photography". Unless you're saying film cameras are much more popular than digital- but nearly the entire industry has left film behind, the same way "digital" LCD's completely left behind "analog" CRT's.

I agree, they don't quite fit into the list. I meant all kinds of cameras, including DSLR. It was just an additional electronic device many people used to own that got replaced by the increasing capabilites of a smartphone. Just like netbooks were replaced by tablets, and tablets were replaced by phablets. And now almost every single smartphone is of the size of a phablet (>= 5.5in).

Most home assistants have extremely limited language support, which is fine for younger people in bigger cities that speak english, but that's about it.

Plus home assistants in America can order things for you, get your local movie times, and have a host of other features mostly only available in the US and certain locations.

Unless you live in Germany, Japan, or the US better home assistants are still a year or two away.

> Most home assistants have extremely limited language support, which is fine for younger people in bigger cities that speak english, but that's about it.

And that's if you can make them actually use English. I'm baffled by the amount of technology that needs forceful and sometimes sophisticated (e.g. Google Search) reminders that just because I'm a Pole from Poland, doesn't mean I want to talk to technology in Polish.

> Plus home assistants in America can order things for you, get your local movie times, and have a host of other features mostly only available in the US and certain locations.

That would be a big factor IMO, if not the factor. Hype waves around smart assistants happen everywhere simultaneously, but most features are initially implemented only for the US (hell, I don't think any voice assistant available in Europe actually has feature parity with what you get when using it in the US). By the time those assistants become available and somewhat usable outside the States, nobody cares anymore.

That's true, in a small European country home assistants will never be as feature-proof as they are in the US, and the language support might never even be there, when the language is spoken by fewer than 3 million people.

Yet, most people under 40 speak English and have Google Assistant in their smartphones, but I have never heard of anyone actually using it.

Probably because everything is already a few taps away with Google always sitting in one's pocket, and people in my country still consider the idea of talking to a device a bit weird. Especially, when being around others.

>Most home assistants have extremely limited language support

Can confirm: Roommate's Alexa cannot understand Swedish, whatsoever.

I think the smaller-sized language markets are "too small" for them to even care. In other words, they don't see an ROI on it, yet; plus, almost everyone speaks English, these days, so that's more of an argument for them not to bother.

In the UK Alexas and Google Home are pretty cheap and a lot of friends have them.

As another poster said, it's an easy market for them as the language is the same.

If you have a smartphone then you also have a digital camera, like it or not.

Plus his oldest daughter has a Google Home "because she really really wanted one". For someone who cares so much about privacy, his plethora of spy-friendly electronics at home is not helping his situation, or his reporting.

Amazing x) Multiple tracking devices and an always-on wiretap, and that's after "changing his tech habits".

What does that make me with phone + laptop? A dinosaur?

We've gotten to point where if all you have is smartphones, laptops, and tablets, you're considered pretty "analog".

Cool. If someone said they didn't have much "tech" in their house, I wouldn't pull them up on their lightbulbs, alarm clock or doorbell. A tablet, computer, and a phone is really table stakes at this point.

I'm not saying having lots of technology in your house is a bad thing by any means, but in my mind at least what I kind of considered as the "baseline" for most people would be smartphone and some sort of personal computer (laptop or desktop). It's just interesting to hear someone say that they think phone+laptop+tablet+nest isn't that much technology, we've gone so quickly from these items being uncommon to people thinking they aren't a big deal. Sure you could say the same thing about lightbulbs and indoor plumbing but I wasn't around for that transition.

I know plenty of people who only have a smart phone, i.e., no tablet or laptop.

A smartphone is table stakes. A laptop is the blind. But owning a tablet would definitely be "tech."

I was going to ask if all of this was worth it, but for a reporter doing investigations on Facebook, I can see why:

> Once I started reporting deeply on Facebook, I deleted all Facebook-owned apps from my phone, including Instagram. I don’t know exactly who has access to the data those apps collect, but while meeting with confidential sources, I don’t want to risk that an app on my phone might be sending Facebook my location.

I would suggest that anyone reporting on tech agencies leave their phones and tablets at home when meeting a source.

Use your laptop if you must use a computer or the internet during the meetings, but you'd be better served by an independent (and dumb) tape recorder.

Or carry a dumb/flip phone.

Off topic...I recently ran into my high school chemistry teacher at Costco this weekend and he said he lost his passion to teach because school do not enforce their "no phone" policy due to litigious parents. He said the students are constantly distracted by their smart phones. On the drive home I was thinking...why can't schools encourage students to carry dumb/flip phones for emergencies?!

God— when I was younger, if a kid was caught with anything not class-related the teacher would just take it from them and keep it for the duration of the class, or until the end of the day—when they could pick it back up. We didn't have cell phones then, but kids had Gameboys or toys or comic books.

If there was an urgent matter, your parents could contact or have someone contact the school itself.

How is it so difficult?

Yes I find this shocking too. My kids are teenagers and their high school makes them check their phones into a special locker room during school hours.

I hadn't imagined it any other way until other relatives said their kids were actually using their phones in class. It seems utterly insane to me - how is it even possible to teach a class like that?

Schools have always had rules, so it seems like a no-brainer to enforce this one, and if parents complain, ask them to take their kids elsewhere.

I've found it worse that parents actually try to call their kids during class. Not text, but call. And then complain when you tell a kid to hang up. It's definitely an issue, and too many principles are afraid of being sued by parents to do much against what they want (and the kids spend more time trying to sneak on their phones than actually paying attention and getting their work done).

Afraid of being sued? For what? What would that lawsuit look like and are there actually any real cases on record for parents suing over in class cell phone bans?

Parents will sue for anything, and even if it's frivolous, it still costs the schools money to fight it. And all it would take is one student not being able to contact/be contacted by a parent in an emergency for such a lawsuit to arise, honestly.

From what I've heard around here schools have increasingly less ability to enforce anything especially if it's disciplinary in action. Having not been in school beyond a college-level course in years I can only imagine the effect this is having on classroom learning and participation. Teachers are losing more and more control of their classrooms for frivolous reasons.

I too think it's a no-brainer to enforce a no phone in the classroom situation.

I'm a current teacher, and I can confirm this is happening. Our school allows the teachers to implement the policy, but it's almost impossible to be the one teacher who doens't allow it. I've found that the kids spend more time trying to be on their phone than paying attention, then they (and parents) want to whine about grades. It's definitely ruined any passion I have, and I wish the school would take the France route to smartphones (i.e. usage banned in schools)

Just to add another anecdote. My partner has taught all over our Canadian school board, k-12 and cellphones are not really the disaster that I often read about. They put them away and tend to keep them away in class. She’s fairly flexible about requests to use them from students and just starts laying down a harder stance with individuals who seem to be abusing her generosity.

Just our experience. She caters her French class to their interests. Makes paper handout exercises involving “tagging” vocabulary in photos and stuff like that. I think young people are just really into their phones and teachers need to relate instead of treating it like the enemy. She goes on her phone after the bell as well...

Maybe her job is better than those of American public school teachers as far as pay, class size and so on. Maybe cellphones are breaking the camels back down south in a way they don’t here? I could see that being the case and speaks to bigger problems

A little further off topic, but can people really sue because a teacher tells their kid not to use their phone in class?

That seems counter-productive.

You can sue for anything. you might not win, but it still costs them a lot of money

> because school do not enforce their "no phone" policy due to litigious parents.

I have family members that are teachers - and this is one of the reasons why some of the most experienced, highly skilled teachers are leaving to teach at private schools. It's not a good thing, because these private schools' tuition fees ($16,000 per year or more) mean that the children of the top 5% of wage earners in a city are getting a better quality education than the public school children. And this is in a location where the public schools are generally of good quality.

Just like any job, teachers who have reached their personal threshold of bullshit-tolerance will leave and go find a job elsewhere.

You're asserting parents at $16k/year private schools are likely to be less pushy/litigious?

You might be surprised.

I attended a private high school like that, and one of my parents worked at a similar high school. The other worked in inner city schools in the NYC DOE. They encountered very different types of parents throughout their careers, yes, but I'd describe the difference as being more of a continuum of helicopter parenting, not litigiousness.

The two private schools I have some experience with (the one I attended and the one my father taught at) had no problem disciplining - and even expelling - rich kids. The only time conspicuous leniency was granted for serious offenses was when the kid was 1) a first time offender, and 2) the child of a large donor or member of the school board.

Sure, the occasional lawsuit comes up (more often than not it's just a threat of a lawsuit). But the schools I'm thinking of charges $20k annual tuition to most students; scholarships reducing that tuition are both competitive and limited. They also have a large, consistent stream of donations. They can weather the storm on most such lawsuits and have counsel on retainer for that kind of thing.

The school will kick them out if they are. Public schools have to accept all kids who live in their area, private schools can refuse to accept the kids.

Sure, and then they get threatened with lawsuits.

I grew up in a very wealthy school district and we had a big private school in the suburb as well. The local cops were leery of disciplining kids, let alone the teachers.

That and the school can afford to absorb a meritless lawsuit or two, which makes those less likely to achieve their goal.

Having known people who went to private school, and discussing the differences between public and private schools, one of the biggest differences is the balance of power of the administrators and teachers. Getting kicked out of private school, especially ones that take a terms of service like approach in their legal language and contracts, means that on average students show a lot of respect to their teachers and to administrators. The private schools my friends went to all generally had a policy of having to refer to staff as sir/ma'am, had very strict codes of conduct, and generally acted quickly to kick trouble makers out of the school.

Having gone to a private school in addition to being able to easily remove trouble makers from the school they were also able to extend a hand to these same students before expulsion. At least at my school they really wanted students to succeed.

I think it’s less likely the parents than the institutions. Most of the private schools are hard to get into. If the parents sue one of them, their kids are probably not getting admission into any private school.

A public school, OTOH, won’t be able to block a child’s admission on the basis of their parents’ litigiousness.

Look at it this way. Would you rather deal with parents of one troublemaker, or with complaints of multitudes of parents of other kids that have their well paid education degraded and interrupted by the troublemaker?

Value of these schools depend on how well they manage this.

Isn't it a recurring theme that paying users are less obnoxious than free users (e.g. when doing feature requests).

Probably has something to do with the fact that if you are willing to pay that much for something, then it must be worth it.

Laptop running Tails from a clean USB drive, never used in any other computer.

A laptop, bought with cash from a randomly chosen store, never left out of sight hence?

Running on open source hardware, manufactured before your eyes, by equipment you also manufactured...

Because reporters are constantly moving about and in regular contact with a variety of people, I can imagine having their phone nearby is a big boon to the trade.

Does anyone know if portable, packable, and sufficiently effective, Faraday cages exist. Effective enough to block all incoming/outgoing signal?

In that case they could deposit their phone in the pack at a random location heading to the meet-up, then remove it at another random location later [without having to leave it behind].

Portable faraday bags are effective enough. They are not much larger than the phone and I can't call one when it's inside the bag. I haven't done any kind of tests to see what signals might be leaking from it.

>Does anyone know if portable, packable, and sufficiently effective, Faraday cages exist

Wrapping the phone in aluminum foil will do the trick. But really simply turning off the phone (which you would want to do anyway to kill the mic) should be enough except perhaps if you're up against a state-level adversary.

Heh, which in some reporters' situations could be the case.

Reminded of that NYT piece (2015) from a reporter who went searching for the IRA (Internet Research Agency) in Russia.

(Brilliant read, and unnerving: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/magazine/the-agency.html)

I wanted to add that in principle turning it off is enough -- in practice, with human foibles, you should leave it at home.

It's easy to stray into leaving your phone on too long or forgetting one of the times. Leaving it at home is much harder of a boundary to cross without knowing.

Meeting a confidential source and carrying a smart phone with you is somewhat contradictory. I'd think leaving the phone would be advisable OpSec.

If I remember correctly, Snowden would put his phone in the refrigerator when meeting a contact at a neutral location like a hotel room. I've also heard of people putting their phones in the microwave to take them off the grid. I don't know how well any of that actually works. All-in-all though, I agree that just leaving it at home would be best. Maybe even give it to someone you trust to walk around with it while you're meeting your contact if you're ultra-paranoid.

As others have said, don't take any electronics at all. Isn't it likely that other apps share the same ad networks and that your location can be correlated from that data?

... and wear cvdazzle style makeup or other face changing costume; facial recognition is good enough and ubiquitous enough to identify you.

Also, develop a special limp for just these meetings - gait analysis is also becoming mainstream.

It’s constantly becoming harder to not be tracked.

Apparently a stone in your shoe might be enough to throw the gait-trackers off.


I watched "Enemy of the State" again on the weekend. Its 20 years old and a great movie. It was talking up about what the NSA could do 20 years ago with CCTVs, satellite imaging, bugs, wiretaps, voice recognition etc. I remember back then it was a bit far fetched. Now it looks trivial and basically there is no hiding anywhere any more.

I love this about older hacker movies. Watching The Net, Hackers, and Enemy of the State back when they came out resulted in many laughs about how unrealistic their portrayal of tech was. Ordering food online? A remotely hackable sprinkler system? Real time video monitoring from the sky? Ridiculous! Now these things are normal.

The Conversation is 44 years old, also a great movie, and while the surveillance is much more primitive, it’s no less scary.

Agreed, The Conversation is fantastic.

Interestingly, both star Gene Hackman as a main character.

If you have an ex- or a problem with someone who works at Google or Facebook, what recourse do you have?

In health, we talk about consent directives for ex-spouses of doctors, and even the NSA had some limited controls for loveint, but there is a real danger.

There are a lot of unprincipled people in tech now and that's only going to get worse.

I guess I just take it for granted but I would think that a YubiKey like system, and a separate phone for work that is fairly clean of other apps would be the SoP for most serious journalists. At the same time I guess I shouldn't be surprised it isn't.

This article felt like a pretty normal guy talking about how he's sort of thinking about how computers are creepy.

I personally have been playing with U2F hosted on my home network and integrating it throughout my life. It's not that hard and definitely worth it when you get it going. I have been working with some YubiKeys to secure my house and my girlfriend and I's internet accounts. Recently I got a couple Solo[0] Keys. Really excited about open hardware that's not platform locked. You can seed your keys yourself and give one a massive offset then say put it in a bank box, if you lose your keys or are compromised, get key from bank and seed a new set. The Yubi and google U2F offerings are cool, but they are definitely designed to lock you in to their tooling. Buying into a single point of failure for this feels dumb.

[0] https://www.solokeys.com

Yeah I haven't gotten far into the key stuff myself. Thanks for the tip as far as rolling your own goes.

>...a separate phone for work that is fairly clean of other apps would be the SoP for most serious journalists.

I would think having no phone would be far better than a separate phone. For example, pinging is a way that any adversary can use to determine your precise location.

> privacy expert Ashkan Soltani, whom I’ve quoted in some stories, compares [consumers being responsible for their own privacy] to ordering a cup of coffee at a Starbucks and being told that the coffee may be loaded with arsenic, but that it’s up to you to figure out whether or not the coffee is safe to drink.

...I'd say the better analogy would be, ordering a cup of coffee and being told it definitely has arsenic in it, and it's up to you to figure out how to safely drink it.

Interesting that in this article he doesn't mention turning off "third party cookies" in his browsers. It's the very first thing I do with any new browser and it's always "on" by default. Sure it's one small step, but still important.

"Changed tech habits for privacy..."

"...still uses Chrome"


He should rethink his lack of Instant Pot.

I have trouble respecting this guy's opinion when he is so concerned about privacy but completely ignores Firefox on both desktop (stability issues... what?!??) and Android (where with plugins like uBlock Origin it becomes the safest and cleanest mobile web browser in my view).

Its nice if all this tracking activities are shared and explained to non-technical folks, but these have been discussed here on HN in much more detail ad nausea over last 5-10 years

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