Realistic Threat Modeling for Activists.
Many important battles have been won since Charlottesville. Two major Neo-Nazi websites, Daily Stormer and Info Stormer have been removed from the internet, the latter being amusingly defaced to depict kittens... Lots and lots of kittens. However, we are still learning some lessons about opsec, that we should have learned a long time ago. Particularly about Threat Modelling.
For most people, the biggest threat to your privacy might be your nosey neighbor, or your boss that checks your facebook page, etc. In those scenarios where you have, "nothing to hide," or at least you think you have nothing to hide, there are few actual steps you need to take to protect your identity and I will not really get into that here. I am more focused on threat modeling for activists, who actually do have things to hide, even if they feel they shouldn't have to.
I want to make some important distinctions here. Leftist activists have nothing to hide, in the sense that they are not actually doing anything reprehensible or destructive to society by and large(with the exception of some tankies). The idea that taking part in political activism means you require more scrutiny is a narrative contrived by the state and isn't based on anything factual. However, just because I believe that you have nothing to hide, doesn't mean you shouldn't be hiding to some extent. The idea that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear comes from a really poor understanding of one's threat model. The fact is that everybody has something, in fact many things that they don't want the world to know about and every single one of those things can be exploited by an adversary to justify your incarceration, should you find yourself in a political climate that doesn't favor your beliefs as we do currently in the United States.
What is Threat Modeling? Threat Modeling is the process of analyzing likely threats to your security. As Leftist organizers of all kinds, we have to recognize many more elements of society as an existential threat. We face oppressive crackdowns from our government. We are at risk of being placed on hit websites belonging to Neo-Nazi groups. We might loose our jobs or be exiled from out communities in some very important ways. We cannot afford to loose any more resources and as such it is important that we get a better idea of our threat model and we learn to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
I think it is important that we examine some recent news to get an accurate idea of our threat model. Exhibit A(https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/14/donald-trump-inauguration-protest-website-search-warrant-dreamhost). We need to understand that we now live under a regime that wishes to repress dissidents. There are many ways that repressive regimes attack their citizens, one might be criminalizing them and then taking away their voting rights. If you jail all of your dissidents, they cannot vote against you and furthermore, if society at large believes the narrative that they are criminals, they will look the other way as you torture, or otherwise mistreat them. For people not anonymizing their IP Address, through a service like TOR or I2P, they may now be suddenly investigated for, "criminal activity," that took place at the inauguration, regardless of ones participation in any actual "criminalized activity." The implications here are huge, seeing as this Subpoena has to do with a case where some of the defendants are facing up to 75 years in prison if convicted on felony rioting charges, despite the fact that there seems to be no evidence directly tying any of the defendants to any specific crime. Furthermore, we need to also recognize the hypocrisy here. When white supremacists stabbed people in Sacramento, the police claimed that they couldn't tie any specific white supremacist to the specific stabbings. In considering our threat model, we should also consider the fact that extreme right wing terrorist groups will never be scrutinized and infiltrated and prosecuted the way that even the most peaceful leftist organizations will.
It is important that we remain out of prison, so that we can continue effective organizing in the community. In some cases, jail time will become unavoidable and for those cases we really need to build a strong prisoner solidarity network, writing letters and sending good reading material to political prisoners all over the United States to make their confinement a little more bearable.
We have a much greater need for anonymity than the community wants to recognize, which is why we must do a lot of the things described below. For any activist planning to go to a leftist rally of any kind, even where you don't intend to engage in any activity the state has criminalized, please consider taking some of the following steps. Keep in mind that good opsec doesn't just protect you, but your comrades as well and we will all be much more effective this side of a jail cell than we would from within one.
Consider masking up. Don't show your face. It isn't just the state you have to protect yourself from, but the alt-right has people that go to rallies for the sole purpose of taking pictures to doxx people. Protect yourself by covering identifying features of your face as well as possible.
Wear non-descript, disposable clothing. Don't wear your crusty battle vest, though you want to show it off to a crowd of comrades. You will be easily identified based on the patches, band logos, etc.
Get some form of body armor to wear under your clothes. As leftists, we cannot expect the police to jump in our behalf, they will only jump in if we have the advantage, otherwise they will stand there twiddling their thumbs while Nazis romp on you like they did in Charlottesville. Skate pads can be pretty helpful, so can custom larping armor. Decide how involved in street confrontation you want to get and prepare accordingly.
Use pseudonyms. It has been estimated that 1 in 5 people in leftist activism communities is actually working for the feds. Don't use your real name, consider meeting and strategizing masked up. Don't meet at your home if you can avoid it. Don't reveal any personal information to your comrades as much as you may feel the desire to. We have to compartmentalize. It sucks. Maybe one day we can come out in the open more, but we cannot do so currently.
Consider engaging in different tactics that you have a better chance of winning with, by getting in and getting out quickly and effectively. Whatever your mission is, get in formation, execute and get out. If that requires too much discipline, then activism may not be for you. Staying in one place makes you an excellent target for law enforcement. If a confrontation with the police cannot be avoided, keep the line strong. You may be able to break through the police line and avoid arrest using this tactic. This tactic is also effective when approaching Nazi lines, though keep in mind that they have a lot more people with military training and they will likely be even more brutal than the police when you engage with them. If this is something that makes you very uncomfortable, you may want to take some time to reconsider your choice of tactics. I fully support those who choose to be part of the Black Bloc, but I also support my comrades that choose not to engage in those tactics as well. We need comrades of all types and nobody should be turned away just because they don't feel comfortable with street confrontation. It takes a special kind of person, one that we are always in short supply of.
In the digital age, opsec is not just concerned with how we behave in a physical space, but it has just as much to do with how we behave on the internet. It is important to note that even in the United States, "land of the free," where we supposedly value free speech, dissidents are being targeted using what they say and what websites they visit on the internet. As aforementioned above, the ip address of anybody that has visited the website of a group involved in organizing the protest to Donald Trumps inauguration has been subpoenaed in an investigation surrounding people that participated in the Black Bloc there. It is very important to note that even many who didn't participate in the Black Block were kettled in by police and charged with Felony Rioting charges. Having visited a website that investigators believe to be involved in organizing what they are calling riots(despite being a far cry from actually being riots), might now put you in jeopardy. An IP address is a series of numbers that helps computers route data to the right place on the internet. As such, your IP address is usually tied to your physical location. The data moving to and from the network identified by your ip address can be monitored, your physical address can be monitored, and all of this because you visited a website.
You are not prostrate to defend yourself against such government intrusion. You can and should be using the TOR browser bundle, available here: https://www.torproject.org/download/download-easy.html.en. It is absolutely essential that you become familiar with this software. TOR encrypts your traffic and creates a series of connections to other computers and routes your traffic through them, removing a layer of encryption at each hop, until your unencrypted traffic exits the network at one of TOR's exit nodes. It is very difficult to determine the origin of traffic routed through the TOR network. Government adversaries can use expensive traffic analysis tactics to attempt to de-anonymize you, but it is very expensive for them and not very reliable. TOR is absolutely worth using for any activist. I implore you to learn to use this tool safely and effectively. I will post more information about advanced tor configurations here in the future as I am sure others in the community will do as well.
Another great tool, based off the ideas established with TOR is I2P. I2P is similar but different than TOR in some key ways. I2P creates a separate encrypted tunnel for both inbound and outbound traffic. This make traffic analysis a lot harder. I think as I2P gains more exit nodes, it will eventually become the gold standard and will replace TOR. It has not had as much research dedicated to it as TOR has however and that is something to consider in your threat model. It is another tool and one that I think can offer a lot of great features to dissidents in the future.
As an aside, If you are not involved in any activity that might already make you a target, operating a TOR bridge would be a great service to the community. A TOR bridge is a server that allows people to connect to TOR through non-standard ports in cases where your ISP or oppressive government has blocked TOR.
The TOR browser bundle is a modified Firefox browser and as such, there are many plugins you can use. You may want to consider downloading and installing some of the following:
There are many other's you may wish to consider using, but this is a good short list to start with.
If you are a more advanced user, you may want to consider downloading and configuring firejail so you can prevent jailed programs such as the TOR browser from accessing important information elsewhere on your computer.
You may also want to consider getting an onionmail email for activism purposes. You can learn more about this at onionmail.info. This is not a solution that should be used by itself. You will also want to download Thunderbird and GnuPG so you can PGP encrypt your email. Never communicate about anything important in clear text. Tor will help you remain anonymous to anybody on the receiving end, whether that be the recipient or an attacker that is listening in on your connection. PGP allows you to encrypt messages for the recipient and sign them so that the recipient knows with certainty that you are the one that sent the message. Again I will post more information about how all of this works in the future, but if you are a self guided and motivated learner, the information is out there.
You may also want to look into how you can use steganography to protect important communications. Steganography is considered "security by obscurity," and should never be the only layer used to protect you, but is a great tool if you know how to use it.