How to Be Invisible Online (for Artists)

August 7, 2013  |  By
Filed under: Essay, Projects/Series
Our park is better without you in it, Central Park, NY. Chris Cobb

Please Keep Out, Central Park, NY. Chris Cobb

Because artists tend to express unpopular political views they get lumped in with witches, heavy metal musicians, Communists, terrorists, satanists, or whatever seems to be warping the minds of our youth at the moment. Think of Ai Weiwei, Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs, Jim Morrison, The Dead Kennedys, The Dixie Chicks, Andres Serrano, N.W.A., Robert Mapplethorpe, Karen Finley, or Amiri Baraka.

And it is precisely because of these views that they get blamed for things like obscenity, blasphemy, and extremism. But come on, unlike bullet manufacturers, crypto-Confederates, or Tea Party members bringing assault rifles to political rallies of their opponents, artists are just making art.

Nonetheless, despite their just making paintings, photographs, or poems, artists have been historical targets of social outrage and hysteria. So before the next wave of hysteria hits, here are a few tips on how to be less of a target, at least online. In our brave new world a little knowledge goes a long way:

1) Be aware that any digital device you carry is a GPS device that can easily be tracked, sometimes by a normal laptop (pimply-faced teenager in a cafe) or remotely (cops huddled in a van, hackers, identity thieves, ex-boyfriends). If you carry any of these you are basically drawing a permanent digital map of every place you go: cell phone, tablet computer, kindle, laptop, Fast Track pass, grocery store rewards card, etc. Your location data can be subpoenaed in court and used against you. Or if you are a paranoid parent or boss, you can enable tracking on a cell phone yourself and track your kid or employee.

2) If you feel you must send dirty pictures of yourself to your boytoy, BFF, or Anthony Weiner, don’t use Twitter, use everyone’s favorite sexting app, Snapchat. Snapchat deletes your messages from the recipient’s phone right after they are viewed.

3) It’s best to use more than one email address. That way you can separate business from personal email. Also, if you get locked out of an email account for some reason, everything won’t be completely lost. It also makes it harder for criminals to commit fraud against you.

4) Identity theft: About ten million people have their identities stolen each year. So unless absolutely necessary, NEVER enter your Social Security number, address, and name on an online form. Your Social Security number is like gold to identity thieves. If you need to do any kind of banking or official business, do it at home.

5) Public and free Wi-Fi is often a massive security risk. Remote users (cops huddled in a van, hackers, identity thieves, ex-boyfriends) can and often do monitor free Wi-Fi spots for activity, leaving your email, passwords, and bank account number visible. If possible, use a portable Wi-Fi hotspot so you can control your own connection to the web.

6) Use search engines that don’t record all of your searches. Here are a few of the popular ones: Ixquick, Startpage, DuckDuckGo. To hit the point home, DuckDuckGo made an amusing illustration of what Google does here.

7) If you do a lot of important business correspondence, or things that deal with law, it might be useful to abandon Google and other search engines that record every search you make (which are all available to various agencies for the asking). A common way to become invisible online is to use an anonymous proxy server for all of your internet activity. The top free proxy servers are here.

8) Wean yourself entirely from Google, if you can. Although it’s designed to be a convenient one-stop shop for your data, it’s a goldmine for data thieves, ex-girlfriends, spymasters, and counterintelligence operatives. It’s a tough call because it makes work life a lot easier and connects us all in astounding ways. Its integration of so many features is dazzling and helpful. And yet, adequate consumer safeguards just aren’t there.

In fact, Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt said, “If you have something you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.” I’m not sure if Schmidt’s attitude is more technocratic, autocratic, or authoritarian, but whatever it is, it sounds nothing like their original motto, “Don’t be evil.”

Follow Chris Cobb on Twitter at @Brooklynonian

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