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Am I Being Hacked?

Last night, I saw evidence that my devices were hacked.

I’ve been an Internet user since 1988, a while before the web became popular (it wasn’t even invented until 1990). Back then, we had email of course, and some other services. Before the days of forums, Twitter or Facebook, the most popular way to chat in groups was Usenet, which hosted threaded “newsgroups” under a wide variety of classifications. The Internet was a more intelligent, better-informed place in those days, largely because one needed a fair degree of technical knowledge in order to play. Sure, there were conspiracy theories, but they were never anywhere near as dumb as those in circulation today.

Many of the theories of the day related to hacking and spying activity by the state. Given that the world’s most technically astute people were Internet users, many of these rumours could be treated seriously. One rumour went that an agency (I forget whether the CIA or NSA) had purchased four Crays (the world’s fastest computers at the time) to analyse all the world’s Internet traffic. Given that the traffic was tiny by today’s standards, and the Internet’s structure pretty simple, this was believable. The response on Usenet was for people to write “Kill the President” in their sig, in order to jam up the spies’ systems.

In hindsight, especially following the 2014 leaks by Edward Snowden, these rumours are very believable. I’ve always operated online on the following assumptions:

  • Everything I write/send/receive is accessible by someone
  • Everything I write/send/receive is being stored somewhere, forever
  • If this all isn’t legal now, it’ll be legal one day
  • In other words, every digital communication you’ve ever made might well be sitting in a database somewhere, and may come back to haunt you

So paranoia is justified. However: ignorant paranoia isn’t useful. Everybody is paranoid these days, about everything. This only helps state intrusion: uninformed scaremongering is worse than simple ignorance. But sadly, everyone has decided that they, or someone they know on Facebook, has exclusive access to the inner workings of the state. And so everyone is following false Messiahs and is hence confused-as-fuck. The David Ickes and Alex Joneses of this world aren’t waking people up: they’re simply distracting the masses from reality.

So anyway, last night I was pretty clearly being hacked by someone. I’ve suspected as much previously: it’s hardly an unusual occurrence these days. Most of these hacks aren’t targeted – people just click the wrong link or download the wrong software all the time. But aside from the standard paranoia, I’m a civil liberties campaigner who tries to make people aware of state censorship, and so I have a tiny reason for genuine paranoia. I don’t kid myself that I’m particularly important, but I’m certainly in the top couple of percent of likely targets, having managed repeatedly to personally annoy representatives of the censorship state.

Yesterday evening, multiple devices of mine did strange things simultaneously. These run different operating systems and connect via different networks. The only common thread is that I own them all. I’m technically literate and thus pretty well protected (though I know of some things I haven’t done, but should). I won’t reveal what happened, except for one particular oddity that worried me: following some weird occurrences on multiple devices, my (Android) phone’s time and date suddenly updated to incorrect values. This has never happened before, and nor should it ever. I flag it because it raises concerns as to why someone might want to do that.

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I’m logging this publicly as insurance, just in case. Paranoia generally isn’t useful, and much of it is based on nonsense. I try to avoid it. But – as the old saying goes – just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

How not to be hacked (or at least, make it harder)

Here are some basic things you should be doing to protect yourself. It won’t stop the most determined and skilled hackers and spies, but it will ensure you’re not a soft target.

  1. Ensure you’re using up-to-date software. Did you notice the recent WannaCry attack that hurt the NHS and various other organisations? They were hacked because they used a very old version of Windows. Update your operating systems and apps promptly. Note that this exploit was first discovered by the US intelligence services, who kept it secret for some time while (presumably) using it to spy on people.
  2. Use anti-virus software – goes without saying, right? And obviously, keep it up to date.
  3. Use a VPN – this hides all your Internet activity from nosey types like your ISP, hackers and the state. It will also get around blocks and filters, which are becoming increasingly commonplace. You can get started with a VPN here. But you can’t trust your VPN provider to keep your surfing private, so also…
  4. Get used to using the Tor browser – this hides your web surfing from everyone including your VPN provider. It’s slower than a regular browser, but far more secure. If you use Tor without a VPN, spies can see you’re doing so (but not what you’re doing): so use it in conjunction with your VPN. Tor is available on all platforms, and it’s free.
  5. Don’t click links in suspicious messages. Unless you expected the message, don’t click the link. This especially includes links from (hacked) friends. Does your friend normally send messages about cheap iPhones? No? Then don’t click.
  6. Make phone calls and send SMS messages as little as possible – these are logged by the state. Apps like WhatsApp are better, because they’re encrypted. Even better is Signal, which replaces your standard SMS app, and encrypts your communications if both ends of the conversation are using Signal. It’s free – install it now, and advise your friends to do the same.

There’s plenty more, but that’s a starting point. Be careful out there!

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Milo, Berkeley, and the Death of the Spirit of the Sixties

This week’s protests to prevent a controversial speaker – Milo Yiannopolis – from speaking at the University of California at Berkeley, are a sad indictment of the of the state of progressive politics. The location of the incident, once the birthplace of a great liberal movement, makes for a sad comparison with the great radical era of the 1960s.

Those of us who were teenage activists in the 1980s felt we’d missed out on something. Our parents’ generation (at least, in our imaginations) had the civil rights movement, the great anti-Vietnam war protests, the hippy movement, Black Power and psychedelia.  Their soundtrack was Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Joan Baez, Motown, Simon and Garfunkel. We had Reagan and Thatcher, mass unemployment, power ballads, and yuppies. They had great progressive victories, we got used to experiencing defeats.

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We, children of a grey London that was run down and depressed after half a century of economic decline, dreamed of the California of the 1960s. I read Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics, and knew all about San Francisco’s famous Haight-Ashbury district, the centre of counterculture, although in reality, my entire experience of travelling outside Britain was limited to a couple of short trips to France.

And I read about the university campus at Berkeley, near San Francisco, the heartland of 1960s American radicalism; a radicalism which, already by the 80s, was ebbing away. In response to repression, Berkeley had been birthplace to the Free Speech Movement of 1964-65, which aimed to ensure that everybody on campus was given their right to speak. It was, in today’s terms, the mirror image of the current student obsession with “no platforming” (i.e. censoring) ideas considered unacceptable. While the movement was left wing, it is important to realise that it created a space for all political speech. As the Wiki page notes: “This applied to the entire student political spectrum, not just the liberal elements that drove the Free Speech Movement”.

Contrast this anti-censorship attitude with what happened this week. Milo Yiannopolis, a provocative speaker of the right, was due to talk about “cultural appropriation” – a bizarre, illiberal idea, now popular on the left, that access to culture should be segregated by race. “Cultural appropriation” popularises on the left an idea that the 1960s left stood firmly against: that people should be treated differently based on nothing but their skin colour or racial origin. It is a bullying and authoritarian ideology, and has resulted in racist incidents like a famous attack on a white man for the “crime” of wearing dreadlocks, and the cancellation of a reggae festival because too many white people were involved.

Milo is a well known shit-stirrer, and enjoys winding up easily-offended illiberal types. He’s annoying, often (but not always) wrong, and I’ve done my best to avoid him. Unfortunately, some on the left have decided instead to promote him, by protesting against him, having him no-platformed, or calling him a “Nazi” for no good reason. Thanks to these intolerant arseholes, we’ve had to put up with Milo being everywhere, and getting a lucrative book deal. Thinking about it, this is pretty much the same way that “liberals” helped Donald Trump reach power. Thanks guys.

Fans of George Orwell will enjoy what happened next. Milo (a gay, Jewish man), due to speak out against a racist, pro-segregationist ideology, faced protest by people calling him a “Nazi”. The talk was cancelled, and riots ensued. And (did I mention?) all this happened at Berkeley, once the home of the Free Speech Movement. Oh, and then Donald J Trump, perhaps the closest thing to a fascist ever elected in America, tweeted to defend free speech against attacks from left-wing Berkeley students. We live in the age of irony. Or perhaps the era of facepalm.

Western liberalism is facing its greatest threat since the 1940s, if ever. The far-right may soon seize control in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe. And if you’re expecting a defence of liberalism from the left, it seems you’ll be disappointed.

Free speech must be defended as a universal human right. Human rights cannot be stripped from people on the basis that they’re Muslims or Communists. Nor can they be stripped from people on the basis that they offend other people. The left will not defeat the fascist right by being more fascist than the right. That way lies tyranny.

Porn Panic! Reviewed at Spiked Online and Elsewhere

Porn Panic! – my book on sex, censorship and fascism – has been on sale for two months, and is receiving strong reviews. You can support my campaign against censorship by buying a copy, and spreading the word to your social networks. In fact, since Christmas is almost upon us, why not buy copies for your politically-minded friends and family?

Below are three recent reviews of the book.

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1. Spiked Online

The latest review was written by Helene Guldberg for Spiked Online:

Barnett recognises that to defend free speech we need to wholeheartedly defend the right of those with whom we disagree to say and think whatever they want. We have the right and capacity to challenge or ignore them, as we see fit. ‘Only a true elitist could try to dictate which ideas other people have access to, rather than join the debate and win by force of reason’, he writes. The most shocking aspect of the new forms of censorship for Barnett was the near silence on this issue from so-called liberals. ‘I found many apparently liberal people were only opposed to censorship of things they enjoyed, but would not extend that principle to things they disapproved of.’

You can read her full review at Spiked

2. Emmeline Peaches

Porn Panic! was also recently reviewed by Emmeline Peaches, a sex blogger, feminist, and social and cultural historian. While she finds areas of disagreement, she concludes:

Porn Panic! is an indisputably addictive read and I loved every minute of it. Porn Panic!isn’t just a book—it’s a call to arms (or activism) for anyone who is truly passionate about the adult industry or our freedom as a nation.

As soon as I was done reading Porn Panic! I couldn’t help but recommend it to others, I want everyone I know to read this book and I want to discuss it with them and hear their own thoughts and opinions. For a book that rails against our culture’s current attempts to keep sex and pornography hush-hush I cannot think of more appropriate nor higher praise than that.

Read her review in full at Emmeline’s site

3. Jay Blevins of Awen Therapy

Jay Blevins is a sex-positive therapist who deals with a wide range of issues including: depression, anxiety, marital and relationship issues, personality disorders, low self esteem, stage of life issues, compulsive behaviors, divorce, parenting and co-parenting issues, physical and sexual abuse, trauma and with  alternative lifestyle clients and issues including transitioning transexuals, coming out, polyamory, fetishes, kink and bdsm.

I’m grateful that he took time out to read and review Porn Panic! He writes:

Barnett’s book is in some ways a brutal, but thought-provoking, read. While much of the focus of the book is on efforts to censor porn, the best part of the book is how Barnett looks at the historical perspectives on porn while it deftly intertwines critical analysis of those perspectives. And when I say brutal, I mean Barnett pulls no punches. He clearly shows how the ongoing battle against porn is fueled by emotion, moral judgment, and religion as opposed to research, evidence and logical, rational thought…

I doubt this book will do much to change the hearts and minds of the most strident anti-porn crusaders. However, for anyone open to critically thinking about the issue, this book is fantastic. It is thorough, thoughtful, and easy to read. Both porn and censorship are important topics of great relevance. I encourage everyone to read this book!

Read the full review at Jay’s website