How to celebrate Independence Day

There are of course a number of ways in which Americans traditionally spend the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, many of which have nothing to do with the significance of the founding of this nation, or for which the significance has been forgotten along the way.

Now, a day off is a day off, and I don’t want to be the one to spoil anyone’s barbecue. You can’t really go wrong in my book by spending the day with friends and/or family enjoying one another’s company and some tasty grillables and beverages. I wouldn’t want to get in the way of that.

However, in addition perhaps it would be good to spend a little time considering the freedoms and priviliges of living in the United States. Many of them seem to be going away for a variety of reasons, and keeping them in mind may be the best way to notice when you read about something that undermines our rights.

  • Read the U S Constitution. It’s a much shorter document than you might think and it won’t take much time. It helps sometimes to get context for the shorthand used in news reports, like Establishment Clause or just the number of one of the Amendments. Scott Berkun, an author I admire, set up a public Facebook event for people to commit to reading the Constitution on Independence Day this year. It’s certainly not necessary to do anything that public, but I appreciate the encouragement.
  • Read a recent Supreme Court decision. OK, these tend to be fairly lengthy, but the Justices of the Supreme Court are mostly really good writers. Especially if there is a recent decision that has made you angry (or pleased) because of the news reports about it, reading the decision (and the dissent) can be quite informative.
  • Write a letter to an elected official. If the point of living in a democratic republic is that our opinions are heard by our representatives, it’s important that our representatives hear our opinions. It doesn’t even have to be a complaint. There might be something one of your elected officials did right, and since that is so rare, that’s all the more important to encourage.
  • Go to the firing range. Yes, this is going to be unpopular among some people. I don’t personally own a firearm and I don’t mean to encourage anyone to go get one. But if you have one and your local range is open and available to you, why not practice your Second Amendment right while practicing your aim?
  • Start using encryption. In contrast with firearms where I suggested you go to the range only if it’s the sort of thing you already do, I absolutely encourage anyone who isn’t currently using encryption to start doing so right now. It’s very popular these days to complain about the government running roughshod over our privacy, but relatively few people are actually doing anything about it, despite the fact that the tools to do something about it are free and easily available. There is a little bit of a learning curve, but there are a lot of people who will be happy to help and answer questions. Me, for example.

That final suggestion is the reason this post exists. Using encryption for common communication and personal data is the best way to make sure that your privacy stays private. You may think you have nothing to hide; great. If your information is encrypted you can always decrypt it when the police ask you to. But it will be your decision and they won’t be able to preemptively search your files before you get to ask your lawyer whether it’s smart to do so.

The government and law enforcement aren’t the only reasons to encrypt your data and communications. There are foreign governments and criminals collecting every bit of information that passes through the servers they have gained access to. You don’t have to be doing something wrong in order for unscrupulous people to use your private information for bad purposes.

I’ll go a step farther to illustrate this point: if you are doing something wrong, please don’t use encryption. I hope you get caught. Stop it right now. But if you have nothing to hide, you’re the ones I want most to get on the encryption bandwagon. I use encryption whereever I can. I consider it a patriotic duty to protect not just myself but my loved ones, neighbors, and fellow citizens by keeping my communications secure. Criminals, foreign governments, and unscrupulous people shouldn’t be able to use my information for their nefarious purposes without my permission.

Heck, even people without bad intent should have to get my permission before having access to my private data. Regular readers of Monochromatic Outlook know that I moved my calendar and address book off of Google and Apple’s servers recently. I care much less about those companies having my data, because I gave them permission and provided that information. What troubled me the whole time I used those cloud services was that I had given away a bunch of other people’s personal information.

If a stranger—or even someone I knew and trusted, for that matter—asked me for a friend’s phone number or home address, I wouldn’t give it to them without permission. Of course I’d gladly pass the requester’s contact information to the other friend, and I would happily ask my friend if it was alright to give that information out. But without that permission, I don’t think it’s my information to give out.

Email and other communication is the same way. It isn’t just my private information I want to keep safe; I don’t want to be responsible for leaking other people’s private information out to people I don’t even know. Even if I could never be held responsible for such a breach of data, it’s wrong. It isn’t my decision whether your information becomes public.

So do it! Install GnuPG and start collecting the public keys of your friends. Start using secure instant messaging clients like Telegram Messenger.1 Ask the professionals you do business with if they have encryption keys for email. If you are already familiar with encryption, offer to help a friend who isn’t to get set up.

Then go and enjoy the fireworks, barbeque, music, beer… whatever it is you normally like to do on a national holiday.

Happy Independence Day!

  1. Telegram is far from perfect in my opinion, but it is taking some important steps in the right direction. ↩︎