Book Review: The Art Of Invisibility

The Art of Invisibility is a book about methods of maintaining privacy and anonymity in an age of surveillance by American hacker and cybersecurity analyst Kevin Mitnick. The book gives advice on every aspect of modern technology which could expose one to nosy neighbors, identity thieves, law enforcement, and other sources of unwanted attention. The book is divided into sixteen chapters which advise the reader about various measures that can be taken to improve security.

The introduction begins with the revelations made about the NSA’s activities by Edward Snowden, then discusses the information that is publicly available about most people with very little searching required. The first chapter is about password security and security questions. Tips are given for choosing a strong password, using a password manager, creating answers for security questions, and using multi-factor authentication. The second and third chapters cover surveillance of email and phones. Mitnick covers the concepts of metadata, encryption, and social engineering. He explains how the Tor browser and MAC addresses work. He discusses several current and historic methods of wiretapping phone conversations and pinpointing the location of a phone, then explains how a burner phone may be used to obtain some privacy.

Chapter 4 is about the functionality and use of encryption to thwart eavesdroppers. This is discussed in the context of text messages, cell phones, and computers, each of which is remarkably vulnerable without it. The next chapter begins with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which is now being used to prosecute anyone who deletes browser history that federal prosecutors wish preserved. Mitnick makes the obvious recommendation of not collecting such history in the first place, then instructs the reader on how to do so. He then discusses how Internet browsers track a user’s location and how this may be countered. The chapter concludes with the dangers of connecting devices and cloud storage.

The sixth chapter details various tactics that websites use to track users, such as scripts, single-pixel images, cookies, and toolbars, then offers advice for stopping them. The chapter ends with a basic overview of Bitcoin for overcoming some current legitimate uses for tracking. The dangers of sharing an Internet connection make up the seventh and eighth chapters. Mitnick teaches the reader how to set up an Internet connection that is difficult for malicious users to find and use. Next, he discusses several cases in which webcams were used to spy on people, including underage students. The phenomenon of ransomware, in which a user’s files are encrypted by malware and can only be decrypted by paying an extortionist, concludes Chapter 7. After this comes the pitfalls of public computers and Wi-Fi connections. Lessons on avoiding man-in-the-middle attacks, using virtual private networks, resetting one’s MAC address, and more are found in the eighth chapter.

The second half of the book opens with examples of photo metadata being used to locate people, then tells how to delete such information and prevent it from being created. Mitnick then gives advice on how to get unwanted photographs of oneself removed from websites, though it may not always work. The dangers of posting sensitive personal information on social media or otherwise sharing it with strangers is discussed. The extent to which corporations track commentary on social media is detailed through examples of students found publicly discussing standardized test material. The absurdity of minors facing criminal charges for possessing nude photos of themselves is used to illustrate the potential dangers of Instagram and Snapchat. The chapter finishes with privacy problems that can come from using dating sites and mobile apps.

Mobile device tracking is the subject of the tenth chapter. Mitnick writes about the third-party accessibility of information recorded by fitness-tracking devices as well as the trackability of people through the GPS features of their devices. He also shares an interesting episode of social engineering combined with tracking in which he surprised a careless driver who almost killed him with a stern warning supposedly from the DMV. The use of drones and facial recognition to erode privacy come later in the chapter, along with some prototypical countermeasures. The next two chapters detail how cars and home appliances can be used to track people, then show people how to turn off many of these features. Doing so will deprive users of some convenience, but that is the general cost of privacy and anonymity.

Chapter 13 applies the information discussed in previous chapters to the workplace. The insecurity of copiers, printers, and other such office appliances is highlighted so as to warn readers not to use them for any purpose that one would not want one’s employer or any hacker to see. Videoconferencing and remote file storage systems are covered in the last part of the chapter, with advice given for increasing security on them. The fourteenth chapter details the myriad ways in which government agents violate privacy and interfere with private electronics and communications, then advises readers on how to protect themselves while being aware of the laws in various countries. Also included here are the privacy concerns with hotel keys, supermarket cards, and airline boarding passes should they fall into the wrong hands.

The fifteenth chapter is mostly about the arrest of Ross Ulbricht, describing the mistakes that led to his capture. Devices that masks geolocation, and could thus have hidden Ulbricht from law enforcement had they existed in 2013, are mentioned. The final chapter lays out a step-by-step guide to achieving as much anonymity online as possible.

From beginning to end, Mitnick shares a wealth of information with just the right amount of personal anecdotes and other stories to keep the reader engaged. The Art of Invisibility is an excellent reference that deserves a place on the bookshelf of all who care about online privacy and personal security until enough time passes to render the information within obsolete, which may be on the order of decades.

Rating: 4.5/5

Lecture: Libertarianism and Reaction

On July 28-30, 2017, the second annual Corax Conference took place in Sliema, Malta. To my great surprise, I was invited and sponsored as a speaker. I decided to seize upon the opportunity to spread part of my message to a live audience, as well as leave the United States for the first time. While there, I gave an early version of the lecture linked below. That version, and all other materials from the conference, may be purchased here: https://cor.ax/coraxconf-remote

This is a lecture about libertarianism and its relationship to reactionary thought of several types.

Why Price Gouging Is Good

When a natural disaster strikes, it is almost guaranteed that there will be yet another uproar about price gouging. Media pundits will take to the airwaves to virtue signal against people who would dare to exploit disaster victims. Government officials will use the crisis to score political points by portraying themselves as defenders of the common people against greedy capitalists. But how accurately does this reflect reality? Let us explore the nature of price gouging to see the economics of such a situation and explain the behavior of journalists and state agents.

Economic Forces

In order to intelligently approach the concept of price gouging, one must first define it. Price gouging is a sudden, sharp increase in prices that occurs in response to a disaster or other civil emergency. Though this defines the act well, it does not explain the mechanisms behind it. When a disaster approaches, there are certain goods that people wish to acquire in greater quantities than normal, such as clean drinking water, non-perishable foods, wooden boards for protecting windows, and so on. If supply is held constant, then this sudden increase in demand for such goods will produce a sudden increase in their prices.

If left unhindered by the state, this upward pressure on prices will produce important benefits. First, it serves as a signal to producers and distributors of those goods that more supply is needed. The producers and distributors thus learn where their goods are most urgently in demand, allowing them to engage in mutually beneficial transactions with disaster victims. This is how free markets are supposed to function in order to meet the needs of customers.

Second, price gouging encourages proactive preparations. A potential business model for a firm is to invest in equipment that allows it to operate when a disaster would otherwise force it to close, and use the proceeds from price gouging to amortize the cost of the equipment. This helps consumers by allowing them to purchase goods at higher prices rather than be left without essential items during a crisis.

Third, price gouging provides an important benefit by conserving the fixed amount of resources which are present before more deliveries can be made to the disaster area. The higher cost of scarce goods disincentivizes people from buying up supplies that other people need, thus helping to keep the items in stock. This keeps scarce resources from being wasted on marginal uses, directing them toward their most valued uses and the people who most need them instead.

Markets And Malice

Unfortunately, not every instance of price gouging is so benevolent. Business owners who seek to exploit vulnerable people in order to make money do exist. But engaging in such behavior in a free market produces a short-term gain followed by a long-term loss. In a pure capitalist environment, reputation is everything for a business. Whatever profits may come from gouging disaster victims in the present will be more than outweighed by the sales that one will lose in the future because of the damage that this does to one’s brand. After all, most people would view such behavior as adding insult to injury and vote against it with their wallets. Though it is impossible to accurately count sales that do not happen, to dismiss this effect as nonexistent is to commit the broken window fallacy.

Enter The State

Most people are economically illiterate, so they tend to focus on the malevolent type of price gouging and be unaware of the benevolent type. In a democratic state, this has predictable results. Politicians and other government agents will frown upon price gouging and seek to punish anyone who they believe to be engaging in it. But it can be difficult to distinguish the natural effects of demand spikes and limited supplies upon price from the efforts of greedy exploiters of disaster victims, especially for government officials who are too far removed from the disaster area to be intimately familiar with the economic dynamics there. Thus, all price gouging is suppressed by the state, and while this may protect a few people from exploitation, it causes more harm than good by disrupting the market signals which would have informed producers and distributors that their goods need to be sent to the disaster area. The end result is that scarce goods are depleted and not replaced, leading people to once more blame the market for failing them when the actual cause of their shortage was a government failure.

Suppression of price gouging has several deleterious effects. First, by placing price controls on goods, the state deprives entrepreneurs of the profit motive to bring additional supply to the disaster area. Without state inteference, people who live outside of the disaster area and are willing to travel there in order to bring supplies could charge enough for their goods to recover their travel costs and be compensated for the inconvenience of spending time in a disaster area, all while making enough profit to make such a venture more attractive than other economic opportunities. Price gouging laws remove such action, leaving only state agencies and altruistic private groups to provide aid. Note that like all government regulations, price gouging laws are subject to regulatory capture by the largest businesses.

Second, removing the incentive for proactive preparations makes untenable the business model for operating during a disaster described above. Third, removing the conservation effect of price gouging forces business owners to sell goods below their market-clearing price. This incentivizes hoarders to buy more than they need and scalpers to buy goods for resale. The existence of scalpers also makes desired goods more difficult to find, as resellers will be more difficult to locate than established stores. Thus, laws against price gouging do not eliminate the practice, but rather shift it from primary markets to secondary markets and cause a different set of people to profit. Taken together, these effects result in artificial scarcity that makes conditions in a disaster area even worse.

A Pair of Razors

Given the clear case in favor of price gouging, one may wonder why so many people in positions of political power rail against it. Reece’s razor suggests that we look for the most cynical explanation when attempting to determine a motive for state policy. No other possibility prioritizes the self-interest of politicians and their minions over the lives and properties of citizens quite like the idea that government officials want to suppress the natural response of markets in order to make government disaster relief agencies look effective and necessary, thus justifying their existence and expansion, so Reece’s razor selects it.

However, it is not in the rational self-interest of elected officials to increase the suffering of disaster victims who are capable of removing them from office in the next election. A better explanation is offered by Hanlon’s razor, which says that one should not attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity. In this view, government officials are not trying to increase the harm done during a disaster; they simply know no better because they are just as economically illiterate as the electorate, if not more so. This razor is a better fit for the available logic and evidence.

Conclusion

It is clear that price gouging has an important economic role in ensuring that goods both go to those who need them most and remain available in times of emergency. Market prices are important signals that tell producers and distributors where their goods are most urgently needed. When the state interferes with this process by imposing price controls, it turns off the signal and incentives for market actors to send aid, encourages hoarding and scalping, and discourages conservation and farsightedness. These effects mean that laws against price gouging harm the very people that they are ostensibly supposed to help. Therefore, price gouging should not be punished by the state or demonized by the press.