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Can Flash Mobs And Olive Drab Clubs Defeat The NSA?
Below is a bit of a protest piece that I posted to the Santa Clara County Green Party email list about the technical challenges and possibilities faced by activists attempting to remain anonymous in the face of increasingly sophisticated NSA and other alphabet soup organizations' soon to be omnipresent surveillance activities. In the end there may be no long term technical fix for any of this.
Can Flash Mobs And Olive Drab Clubs Defeat The NSA?
By John Thielking
For the past few days this author has been brainstorming about how to regain some small pieces of his privacy in the face of continuing (and progressing) NSA and other alphabet soup organizations' blanket surveillance. The goal is to find a way to preserve or at least momentarily regain privacy without using methods that require that they be secure from eavesdropping (such as by not using encryption or much of any electronic hardware which has been proven to have numerous back doors in both hardware and software).
Up to this point, this author has been content to merely take the simple countermeasure of leaving his cell phone at home and seldom if ever taking it with him when going to any place in public such as a shopping trip or a political protest. Going on vacation out of town is the exception to this and the author has found it necessary to submit to surveillance while on vacation. Most recently, this prohibition on carrying his cell phone in public has been extended to include leaving his electronic wristwatch at home and covering up his VTA bus pass/Clipper Card which has an RFID chip in it with tin foil and keeping it in his wallet in case the fare inspector wants to see it while he is riding the light rail. Various sources have indicated that blanket radio surveillance of a city can reveal what is being typed on various people's computer monitors and cell phone signals can carry for up to 20 miles. So based on that information, it is likely that radio surveillance can reveal the locations of various people's electronic wristwatches. All modern wristwatches have batteries in them powering the watch (even the quartz ones that look like the old kind that you used to have to keep wound up to keep them running) so all modern wristwatches can likely be tracked this way.
It is possible to carry a cell phone in public and not be tracked, at least not in real time. To do this do the following: If your cell phone is a smart phone, put it in airplane mode and then turn it off. If it is a feature phone with no airplane mode available, turn it off and then take the battery out. Then place the phone inside of a paper envelope. This prevents the conductive parts of the phone such as various external metal extrusions that penetrate the case and the conductive touch screen from contacting the aluminum foil and defeating the Faraday Cage effect that will be formed by the aluminum foil in the last step. Then take a sheet of tin foil and cover the outside of the envelope that contains the cell phone. With the cell phone in airplane mode, it will not try too hard to signal the nearest cell tower nor will it use a lot of energy trying to connect using WiFi so the rapid battery drain that happens when covering up a turned off feature phone that still has the battery installed will not occur, at least not significantly, so the battery life will be up to a week or more when covered with tin foil. Note that since most smart phones have at least 1GB of available memory, it is quite possible/likely that the microphone of the cell phone is recording sounds (and the times that the sounds were recorded) for broadcast to the NSA later when you exit airplane mode to make a call or surf the web or answer e-mail. To prevent this from doing anything significant to compromise your privacy, if you are a girl person, you can place an activated white noise generator (about the size of a small radio, available from your local anti-spy equipment web site --- I bought mine about 15 years ago, so sorry but I forgot exactly where I got it ) put this in your purse next to your envelope and tin foil encased cell phone. This way, it will be much more difficult for the NSA to piece together where you were based on recorded background noises.
Now for the part that has something to do with the title of this article. This author, in talking to one of his relatives who had visited China recently, was inspired by the relative's story of how the Chinese have been dealing with their own surveillance state. It seems that a widespread phenomenon in China is that everyone tends to dress the same so that they will blend in to the crowd of people in their surroundings. This author did a bit of research online to try to find a way to defeat facial recognition software used by drones and various city-wide security cameras that are either connected to the Internet directly or that at least have TV monitors which can have their signals monitored by blanket radio surveillance. During this research, this author came across various references to the fact that some people in China and Australia are now using full face covering black visors in place of sunscreen. It seems that these full face visors are being marketed as being superior to sunscreen, since sunscreen only blocks the burning UVB rays and not the skin wrinkling UVA rays, while the visors block up to 99% of both UVA and UVB rays. It could be argued that these visors are “medically necessary” and thus they might even be exempt from laws in various places that seek to ban the wearing of masks at political protests. The desireable feature of these visors is that they may defeat facial recognition software. At least in the case of a human viewing the catalog pictures showing the models wearing these visors, the facial features of the models appear to be completely obscured. It is not clear if software used to enhance images could penetrate the low contrast “image” of the models' faces that may be allowed to show through by the dark plastic of these visors. This author was unable to find a mirrored version of one of these visors for sale that certainly would not be able to be penetrated by image enhancing software, but he was able to find a picture of a Chinese person wearing a mirrored version.
Now for the “plan” of how to defeat the NSA surveillance using an Olive Drab Club and/or a Flash Mob.
1) On some Sunday afternoon or other that is convenient, have people come together in a specific open space inside of a shopping mall such as the food court at a specific time. Ask them to all dress the same such as by wearing black pants and blank white shirts. Ask them to wear the UVA/UVB blocking full face visors over their full faces for the duration of the event. Ask them to not carry any electronic devices with them on the final leg of their trip to the location inside the mall. They can leave their cell phones and watches in their cars. Any ID cards or other things with RFID chips in them should be covered with an envelope and a sheet of tin foil if they are to be carried with the person. The use of license plate readers and other tracking methods by the police and NSA while protestors are traveling to the mall or on their way home after the event will not affect the success of this protest.
2) When the people are all assembled, this will form the first “Flash Mob”. The goal is to get as big a mob of people all milling around as close together as possible to confuse any tracking software that may be attempting to follow individuals through the images broadcast over the mall security cameras. If the Flash Mob is done inside the mall building during the day, any really high tech drones circling overhead outside will not be able to use their infrared cameras to penetrate the walls of the building as they will be blinded by reflected sunlight. Thus the enhanced software that may be able to track individuals buried inside the Flash Mob should be much harder if not impossible for the NSA to use to tease apart who exactly went where inside the Flash Mob.
3) While people are buried inside the Flash Mob, they are all handed regular wristwatches that can be used to help keep track of the exact time to be ready to reassemble in the second Flash Mob at the end of the event. It is not important that the individual watches may have their locations tracked during the event. So long as the face shields are kept covering people's faces, the individual watches will not reveal people's individual identities.
4) Then for the next 2-3 hours the people go on various shopping trips. They are all careful to always pay with cash and they are encouraged to wear a particular type of backpack to carry the stuff they buy, so again, everyone tends to look the same. They can go anywhere in town to go shopping, not just shop at that one mall. If they are traveling large distances that can not be covered on foot, they should pay cash to use public transportation and not use their own vehicles. They are encouraged to remove any deactivated RIFD/antishoplifting tags that may be on the merchandise that they purchased prior to reassembling for the second Flash Mob. It is also recommended that people talk as little as possible or not at all during this part of the event in case security cameras or their loaned watches are recording/transmitting and/or analyzing their voices.
5) After 2-3 hours of shopping, everyone checks the time on their borrowed watches and reassembles at the appointed time inside the shopping mall. The Flash Mob is repeated with everyone trying to get as close as possible together while dropping off their loaned wristwatches.
6) Then people disperse and go back to their homes. They can get to their homes any way that they wish with as little or as much of their faces and identities exposed to surveillance as they desire. License plate readers, etc won't be able to figure out what stores they went into or what they purchased during the event unless they start talking about their experiences that happened at the event.
PS Individuals can attempt to duplicate the anonymizing effect of the Flash Mob on their own by modifying a bit what they do while inside of a building out of sight of any drone IR cameras outside the building during the day or security cameras inside the building, such as by using a bathroom stall to change clothes. Start by traveling to the building in question on foot or on public transportation or if the building allows all day parking for non-customers you can drive your car there. Be undisguised in regards to your external appearance. Let any facial recognition software or license plate readers figure out that it is you going there. You won't be able to keep the tracking software from following you to and from your residence anyway, at least during the times after 2015 when surveillance drones are going to be everywhere over every city. Keep your face covering visor and a change of shirt concealed inside of a backpack. Leave all electronic devices at home or in your car. Inside the building and inside the bathroom stall, change your shirt to a different color and take out a different colored but similar sized backpack that was concealed inside the first backpack. Put the first backpack inside of the second backpack along with the original shirt you were wearing. Put the visor on over your entire face. Exit the bathroom stall and exit the building and go shopping on foot or using public transportation, paying with cash always. While shopping you can optionally lift the visor enough while indoors to reveal your face to the cashier and other people who it would be polite to reveal your face to while communicating with them, but don't lift the visor high enough for security cameras, usually mounted in the ceilings, to see your face. To go home, go back into the same building and a bathroom stall and reverse the process so that you exit the building wearing the first t-shirt and displaying the first backpack and concealing the second t-shirt and face covering visor and second backpack inside the first backpack. Hopefully you have enough room in the backpacks for the backpacks and the items that you purchased at the stores you visited. Be sure to pay cash and not talk much if at all while shopping. If you need to travel at night, to remain anonymous using the above procedure, be sure to go into a crowd inside of a building such as a disco dance floor that will remain crowded late into the evening. Do some dancing on the dance floor while entering and exiting the building and make it look like the “real you”, identifiable by the drones circling outside the building, which can see some limited detail using IR cameras and have limited ability to track individuals inside the building from a viewpoint outside the building, make it look like you spent the whole time dancing during your shopping trip. Good luck and have some fun and retain your sense of humor while attempting to defeat the NSA surveillance, at least for a few hours. :>). If more people adopt these methods as the surveillance state expands and more people begin to feel inconvenienced by it, it should get easier and more reliable to use these methods to temporarily defeat the NSA surveillance. For instance, if enough people all dress the same, then it will only be necessary to hide your visor inside one backpack when going to the disco building and it won't be necessary to change your shirt or backpack, just whip out your visor while inside the disco building out of view of any cameras. This last stage is when, like the Chinese, we will all become members of the Olive Drab Club.
Responses by the author to one e-mail reply:
I hope you read my entire piece, though it was a bit long. I read your entire piece on the Peace Center Blog. I do care how much data is collected on me and I make it as hard as practical for the people doing the collecting to do their jobs. I don't use a VPN to anonymize my web surfing as I'm sure there is probably a back door to that program that is being used by any data collector worth their salt. The Torr system itself was developed by the US govt, so I need not explain any more about that. But if there is a way that uses basic physics such as aluminum foil blocking all signals to and from a cell phone or RFID chip I will certainly use that idea to its best advantage. To the best of my knowledge, God did not design a "back door" that lets the US govt send or receive electromagnetic signals from the interior of a Faraday Cage! Similarly, God did not design a "back door" that lets the US govt see through the reflection of a one way mirror while not illuminating the back side. It is these types of very basic techniques that I am referring to in my piece. Like I said in my piece, all that matters is that people are able to make an anonymous shopping trip between the first Flash Mob and the second one, or between the time they exit the disco building the first time and the time they enter it the second time. The license plate readers, drone cameras and the cell tower trackers can data collect on me all they want at other times and they will never figure out where it was that I went shopping in between those two points in time that I mentioned, if I'm doing the procedure correctly. And the procedure doesn't have to be done perfectly every time for it to work most of the time if there are enough people doing it with me. If my disguise is penetrated one day, it likely will not be penetrated the next day, assuming there are many others using the exact same disguise. This failure tolerant method is superior to encryption, which works only until it is penetrated the first time. And of course at the beginning it is necessary that it not be too obvious that I'm the only guy in CA or Oregon with a full UVA/UVB face shield, especially one worn at night time. I have until 2015 to fix that, before the drones overhead can follow me all the way home while I'm looking conspicuous even if I am "anonymous", Hah! That point I hope to change by pointing out the cultural shifts regarding surveillance that happened or are happening in China and how we can occasionally and temporarily defeat the data collection process if we all work together. Of course, I'll bet that the Chinese are also in love with their new fangled cell phones and are quite content to be tracked all over the place even while they try not to be noticed by the security people who are tailing them by continuing to wear Olive Drab. Just because they are content doesn't mean that I am.
Actually, now that I think about this some more, the UVA/UVB face shield is often illuminated from the backside --- in the Infrared spectrum. So maybe that particular piece of hardware won't work so well in disguising people's faces when they are confronted with IR cameras. It still might be effective against IR cameras most of the time during daylight hours when there is lots of reflected sunlight around to confuse the situation, and as long as indoor security systems are not yet equipped with IR cameras, but not so well at night. Fortunately there is a company that makes IR shielding hoodies and body suits. These are much more expensive than the visors ($35 vs $300+) so it is not clear how the masses will be able to adopt using those. Maybe someone can come up with an IR resistant film (and one way optical mirror?) to put on the inside of the visors. That would keep the cost factor within reason and also allow polite society to continue to function inside of buildings where the face shield can be partly lifted to reveal your face to someone you have to communicate with while not revealing your face to the overhead security cameras.
And of course if we ever do secure a reliable source of IR resistant film to use in the visors the NSA will likely simply lean on the company that makes the film ( like they did to the RSA encryption company) and require them to produce subsequent editions of their films that have certain "spectrum holes" in them so that only the military grade IR cameras mounted on the drones flying over every city starting in 2015 can still recognize the faces of the people wearing the visors, at least at night. And on and on it goes, until people organize to stop the entire surveillance state.