Privacy online

Privacy online

Privacy online for authors (and ordinary entities)

Online privacy sometimes seems a bit like the Fountain of Youth: everyone wants a piece, and no-one really knows how to get there because it’s at least partly alchemy.

Not so.

We’re coming up on Data Privacy Day, so here are a few really-to-relatively simple things you can do, as an absolutely standard-model human being, optionally one who writes, to improve your online privacy without doing anything drastic, like trying to delete your online footprint. No mermaid tears required.

Disclosure: Who died and elected me privacy god? I work in data privacy and compliance, BUT nothing I say here represents the company I work for.

The concept of TANSTAAFL, first

For them as haven’t read their Heinlein, I’m going to introduce you to a really key concept around ‘free’ services (online or anywhere else).

That concept is TANSTAAFL (There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch). Facebook is not free. Facebook is suctioning up your data and selling to anyone who’ll pay. That airport ‘free’ WiFi is not free for broadly similar reasons.

‘Free’ apps that promise to give you marvelous selfie filters and want access to your location, your contacts, and everything else? Nope! They’re not free either. You’re just paying them in data – yours, and if you give them access to that coveted Contacts list, your friends’ data, as well.

Get a VPN

Yes, really. A VPN (virtual private network) basically gives data moving to and from your device Star Trek shields as far as the unauthorised are concerned. It’s the go-to for some additional privacy online.

In slightly more technical terms, it encrypts your data. It slows data transmission down slightly, which is why people with slow Internet to begin with aren’t huge converts to VPN, but it means that no one can see what you’re up to. This is especially worth it in situations like mobile phones and those oh-so-tempting ‘free’ WiFis in cafes and airports. Put a VPN from a reputable provider on your cell phone. Put it on your home computer. Put it on your tablet.

Techradar’s Top 10 VPN services (I personally disagree with the inclusion of NordVPN, which had a breach a few months back, but I guess there’s nothing like publicly-bitten, really paranoid thereafter…)

You don’t have to give up Netflix or Fitbit. Better VPNs work with Netflix, and if you don’t want to shell out but do want Netflix, you can take the dumb-but-practical route and switch the thing off while you binge on The Witcher. Fitbit throws the occasional shit-fit about VPNs, but switching regions is a simple fix that takes all of a few seconds.

Use Multi-factor Authentication

Also known as two-factor authentication, 2FA, MFA…just for the love of all the squishy, squirmy deities, DO NOT use the text message option for 2FA unless there really is nothing else. (Reason: SIM card jacking, among others.)

Basically, humans are fallible. If you can remember a password, someone else can break it. If you happen to be dumb enough to use login: admin, password: admin, you end up shelling out billions in ‘we fucked up’ money. Multi-factor auth means that someone needs your login, your password, AND something else (that’s where that ‘multi’ comes in).

MFA comes in many forms. You can use an app on your phone, like Google Authenticator. You can buy a physical key, like a Yubikey. Your fingerprint can form a part of MFA. It can, gods help us all, be a text message with a code in it.

Because MFA is an extra step in the login process, a lot of people moan about it. Feel free to moan all you want, just use it. Use the method that makes the most sense for you, that takes the least time and effort (for me, that’s my phone and Google Auth. For you, it may be a Yubikey on your keyring. Whatever blows your skirt up).

Get a password manager

You remember how, just up above, I said humans are fallible, and if you can remember it, someone else can break it? Yeah, that. Well, newsflash, that 123qwerty password isn’t secure. Keeping your super-hard-to-remember password on a Post-It under your keyboard isn’t secure. Keeping an Excel sheet on your desktop with your logins and passwords isn’t secure. Setting all your favourite shopping sites to keep you logged in until the world ends, no, is not secure.

But remembering all those symbols and numbers and upper and lower case passwords is hard! Yes, it is. Sometimes adulting sucks. Sometimes, you can find a really easy easy way around the suckage. Password managers are suck-avoidance. A lot also offer a ‘free’ option. (Yes, I do remember what I said about TANSTAAFL.)

PC Mag’s Top 10 Password managers for 2020

A semi-decent variant, like LastPass, will plug into your browser of choice, have an app, let you add logins and passwords, auto-launch sites for you, generate secure passwords, and auto-update your settings when you change a password.

A password manager, effectively, means you need one decent password that you put the brain sweat into remembering, and use MFA with it, and the password manager manages all the rest of them. Awesome, right?

Don’t auto-accept cookies

…most places in the first world, with the exception of the USA, have laws that say you aren’t obliged to. Large companies, for the most part, aren’t big fans of those laws, which is why when you go hunting in ‘select options’ in cookie banners (assuming there even is an option to select or decline), you’ll often have to dig down to find the options, or decline with each third party site individually. (Hint: a lot of those companies will have hidden any options they offer equally thoroughly.)

WTF are cookies anyway? Cookies are tiny files (we’re talking bytes here, not MB), that a site drops on your device. Some of them are harmless, the equivalent of ‘we want to remember you prefer the French-language site so you don’t have to tell us every time’. Some of them sit there and do nasty things like tell every other site you land on where you’ve been, what you did, what you’re interested in buying today (ever wondered how you can look at a new kitchen whisk on Amazon and get hit with adverts for domestic appliances everywhere for the next six months? That ain’t alchemy either).

So now we’ve covered why companies aren’t keen on laws that say they shouldn’t track you and market shit to you without your actual consent…how do you exercise those anti-cookie rights? Well, unfortunately, cookies are such an established part of the internet that in a lot of cases, and especially if you deal with a lot of US sites outside California, the answer is ‘you can’t’. In the EEA, companies are obliged to provide you specific information about what cookies they want to place and get your active, specific, and informed consent to any marketing cookies. A lot of them don’t, either because they’re trying to figure out how, can’t afford a good solution, or just don’t want to and hope they don’t get a DPA land on them before they get set up.

Three simple things you can do that will help:

  1. Use incognito browsing. You’ll encounter a lot of shrieking from sites that can’t identify you on sight, but that can be educational too.
  2. Delete your cookies periodically (say, at least once a week, if you can’t be bothered to do it after each online session. There’s security consciousness and there’s masochism…)
  3. There’s a browser app called Consent-O-Matic developed by a team of privacy researchers in Denmark (after they found out all about the shadier cookie practices out there), where you install it, tell it you want to let people see which pages you spend time on and don’t want to be tracked by online advertisers for the rest of your life, (for example) and when it comes across a cookie tool it can handshake with, it sets those options for you. I recommend it.

That’s all, folks…

So, hopefully I’ve now scared the shit out of you and you’re off to investigate the wonderful options for trying to keep people from peering through your online windows. It’s a brave new world.

The good news is, 107 of the world’s 210(ish) officially recognised countries already have some form of privacy law in place as of 2019, and more are looking into one, so things are improving. We’re just in that lovely Twilight Zone where legislators take a couple of years to consult, draft, and pass laws protecting you, and a good hacker team can get into a system in under 18 minutes (yes, that’s minutes, with an ‘m’.)

In case after reading all that you feel in need a good, solid dose of escapism (here’s the TANSTAAFL in action part) – my sci-fi box set is on Kindle Unlimited, featuring interstellar mercenary cults, pretzel politics, and enough dirty fighting to bring a tear to your eye. Fund a starving author to write more escapism.

What we can learn from myths and legends

What we can learn from myths and legends

Myths and legends

Hercules and the Aegean. Persephone and Hades. Midas. Myths and legends are often seen as cautionary tales, like the precursor to Aesop’s fables, but I put it to you that in many cases, this may simply be bad publicity, or even that they were ideas whose time had not yet come.

Let’s take a serious look at Hercules and the Aegean stable legend, for example. I mean, you have one seriously over-muscled demi-god with an atonement complex, and a lot of mucking out to get done. In ancient Greece, you’d usually have people for that kind of thing, and so employing a demi-god for it was seen rather as bringing in a ringer, especially as he expected to get paid for it. However, in this day and age, the idea of hiring a cleaning service has clearly come – whether by sheer dumb luck or stereotyping, I can hardly move online without falling over someone telling me my house needs cleaning and they’re the girls and boys for the job. Hercules’s idea of domestic labour for the highest bidder is clearly sound: he was simply unfortunate in being born about 3,000 years before online advertising.

Or what about Persephone and Hades? Persephone, daughter of Demeter, wound up married to Hades, lord of the underworld, but Mommy threw a fit, and Persephone ended up spending six months in Hades and six months with her mother (we all know those mothers-in-law…). However, shocking as this concept was at the time, when the female role in society was basically that of a rather underprivileged servant, of which Hades was essentially deprived, in this day and age couples living apart is increasingly common. The involvement of the mother-in-law I can’t speak to, but fairly clearly, another revolutionary idea that was simply several thousand years ahead of its time.

I find myself wondering what we’re looking at today that’s seen as dangerously revolutionary, that will seem like a good idea in another few thousand years. Both genders getting paid the same for doing the same job, maybe. Or maybe looking after the environment (although, thinking about it, if we don’t grow a collective brain about that sooner than several thousand years out, we’re unlikely to be around in several thousand years…)

Heading into 2020

Heading into 2020

Heading into 2020

There’s a terrible, terrible joke that can be trotted out for the next little while when people ask me what my plans are for 2020 – the answer being that I don’t know, I don’t have 20/20 vision. (Groan.)

All right, anyone who’s still reading after that one…2019 was a year in which I changed almost everything about my life it’s possible to change. New day job, separation, getting my own place…2019 pretty much destruct-tested the saying that ‘the magic starts outside your comfort zone’. I’m happy to say that sitting here on the cusp of 2020, I’m healthier, happier, and more relaxed than I’ve been in a decade or more. I spent a lot of time thinking before, after, and during about the Benjamin Franklin quote that ‘Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.’ I’m not about to get it tattooed on my ass (well, get back to me on that after New Year’s Eve…), but I gave up being miserable in a familiar rut, took a leap, and so far I have got to say the water’s been warm.

Partly because of all the upheaval, I got precisely one novella published, and because I’m honest, I’ll admit I had no plans to write or publish a novella in the Cortii Mercenaries series, in 2019 or any other time. Irin Seviki, who shows up as a secondary character in Fighting Shadows, had other ideas. One of the dubious joys of being a complete pantser is that sometimes, shit just happens. That said, I’m working my way through edits on Cortii #5, which was the book I actually did plan to publish in 2019. That probably is going to happen closer to Midsummer 2020. It’s currently confessed to the title of Rebel’s Bargain, which may or may not be what it goes to print under. 

Numbers 6, 7, and part of 8 in the Cortii series are in various stages between my diseased brain and publication as well, and in case that wasn’t enough, I’m also getting intermittently hi-jacked by a half-siren, half-asshole (her description, not mine) acquisitions specialist on the trail of the Peaches of Immortality. It is almost certainly not going to publish under its current working title of ‘Peaches’, not least because the characters give me snark about it every time I open the file. If you’re subscribed to my newsletter, you’ve seen a snippet from her already – if you aren’t, go sign up, I tell people where to find free books in pretty much every newsletter. There’s no way to go wrong with free books.

In part due to getting my own place, I’ve also been reading to the point where Goodreads whines pitifully every time I make it show me all the books I read this year (as opposed to, say, those I read in the past two weeks). Particular favourites, old and new, included When Demons Walk, by Patricia Briggs; The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein; Missee Lee, by Arthur Ransome; Warrior, by Marie Brennan; and The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff. I have every intention of making GR beg for mercy next year, too. Among other things, I live with a pair of domineering Siamese cats, who approve of reading because it involves me sitting still and providing heat to my feline overlords.

As my local liquor store stocks a favourite treat I’m rarely able to get my claws on here, I’m going to be celebrating the incoming year with ginger wine. Yes, it’s a grannie drink. No, I really don’t care. More for me. Mmmm, ginger.

What’s your 2020 looking like? 

Wishing you all good things and many good books!

Witches and Werewolves and Vampires, oh my

Witches and Werewolves and Vampires, oh my

All right, I’ve been scarily (ah-hah) bad about blogging recently. However, no way was I going to miss out on Hallowe’en, which is a feast that appeals to my sweet tooth and gives me costumes to look at (and photos for future blackmail to take). 

Of witches, werewolves, and vampires, dare I say, I don’t have a firm favourite when it comes to reading (or movies). (Yes, all right, calm down, there’s still plenty of Hallowe’en left to find me and feed me to a wandering hungry spirit…)

Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg are pretty much unequaled for me when it comes to witches. They’re the traditional pointy-hatted type, but like almost anything the late Sir Terry had a quill in, they take the stereotypes and twist them into a pretzel, and provide a lot of awesome one-liners while they do it. 

Werewolves (and most other types of were-creature) are a fantasy and urban fantasy staple, and there are a lot of stories out there to pick from. I do rather regret the over-muscled “Alpha” stereotype, which always feels to me like the human author projecting pretty much the downside of a human mentality onto a character and using the “animal instincts” as the excuse, but I do have about three-quarters of my own were story saved on a thumb drive somewhere. The werewolf Alpha continually gets his come-uppance from a were-cat, in case you were wondering.

As someone’s about to point out, I do actually have a vampire novel out, Death is for the Living. It’s true. It also does bad, bad things to the traditional vampire tropes (vampire hunters on a yacht, in the Caribbean, anyone?), but I had a lot of fun writing it. I’m personally in favour of the slightly nastier vampire type – the type that has all the strength and magical or other abilities and lost any moral compass they started out with in a bar centuries ago.

So, without further ado, which mythical creature are you?

Chrysalides, cusps, and changes

Chrysalides, cusps, and changes

And just what the hell do chrysalides, cusps, and changes have to do with one another, or indeed the next book in the Cortii series?

All right, but they’ve got lovely alliteration. Which is author-y stuff in its own fashion. And they’re sorta-kinda relevant. Read on if you want to gather your arguments with that statement.

So, the chrysalis

I’ve been living in a bit of a chrysalis the last few years, and although one of my pet hates is fluttery things dive-bombing my head, which are on the whole what tend to emerge from chrysalides, I have hopes that I’m on the way to breaking out of mine. 

Maybe to dive-bomb someone’s head. Probably not, though, because although lost idiots who can’t work their cell phones seem to find me utterly irresistible, I prefer to avoid my own species for the most part.

I’d been steadily withdrawing into my chrysalis for most of the past decade. I had stuff to deal with at home, and it was eating increasing amounts of my energy. Add to that a demanding job in less-than-optimal conditions, and my energy dropped through the orange right into the red and started drilling through the bottom of the tank. The idea of going out with friends was enough to make me want to pull a cushion over my head, lock the door, and hide. Going for a walk, with the inevitable human contact, and then having to drag myself back again, wasn’t a relaxing prospect. Doing the groceries was a marathon that I gritted my teeth and got through. Writing was about the only thing I really still found fun, and even that was pulling down resources that were basically dry.

Mix in that I’d been sleeping on a sofabed for the last four – five years, and I wasn’t even doing much for the purely physical side of my exhaustion.

The cusp

Side order of glitterIt became increasingly clear over a period of years that, like so many things in life, no one was going to swan in and wave a wand and make everything better (with a possible side-order of gratuitous glitter, for reasons). If I wanted to not spend the rest of my existence trying to parse out dribbles of energy to deal with the absolute bare minimum of shit that had to get dealt with while being permanently stressed and irritated, I was going to have to bloody well find  some energy, get off my ass, and change something myself.

As most people don’t get a Classical education, some of you may not be familiar with the Greek myth of the fate of Sisyphus. Basically, he was a bastard in life who spent his afterlife doomed to push a big bloody rock up a steep hill – except when he almost had it to the top, it would roll all the way back down again. The Wikipedia version’s a bit less abbreviated.

I had a very visceral understanding of how Sisyphus felt.  Day to day shit was bottoming me out until all I wanted was to find a nice deep pit and pull the top in after me, and I had to come up with enough energy and motivation to make major life changes?

I’ve never had a lot of patience for weeping or screaming as a response to situations. Like thoughts and prayers, it may make you feel briefly better, but it’ll do absolutely bugger-all in any practical terms.

The changes

I therefore got off my ass, put my game face on, or what passes for it, and found a new job. With a boss I like, in a nice office, doing something I actually quite enjoy. That was April. I’d been planning to up sticks and leave town altogether, but was foiled by the fact that unless I wanted to move to Toronto or Montreal, there was basically very little going in terms of jobs I could do that I wanted to do outside Vancouver.

However, that still left my home situation. I was less stressed at work (and given the stress levels in the first three months of any new job, feel free to draw conclusions), but I pretty clearly wasn’t done. I was still hemorrhaging energy, because coming home was not, as it is for most people, relaxing. I was going from my employment, to more stress and no small amount of frustration, to sleep on a sofa, and then going back around again the next day.

In May, I started looking for a pet-friendly rental, in Vancouver, that I could afford. Anyone who’s spent time in Vancouver will be laughing hysterically at this one.

However, at this point I got lucky. There was in fact somewhere available, that had no issue with a pair of cats, it was in an area I wanted to live in, it was possible to get to work from there without spending three hours stuck in traffic each way, and I could even afford it, if I sucked in my spending a bit. It wasn’t available until July, but given Vancouver, hell, I jumped all over it.

What I hadn’t factored in was my complete lack of ability to hurry up and wait. I’d’ve made a very poor soldier. I wanted a change; in fact, given an increasing number of stress-related side-effects that, among other things, put me on steroid inhalers, I needed a change – but it was a tough change to make. I was going to leave a situation that was familiar and take a leap into the unknown. But I couldn’t even take that leap for another two months.

I spent a lot of time the past few months staring that that old line about those who give up freedom for safety deserve neither. I spent even more time staring at the fact that much as I couldn’t go on the way I was, getting somewhere I could cope with was going to involve a lot of upheaval, and not just for me. 

The kicker was that I was also leaving my 18-year relationship, which as anyone who’s been unfortunate enough to have to will tell you, is tough on everyone involved.

I sucked it up, carefully didn’t hit the liquor cabinet, compartmentalised busily, and finally made my move. I’m now, for the first time since I was nineteen, in my own place, on my own (well, with a pair of Siamese cats, who actually own the place and let me pay for it), only cleaning up after and shopping for myself, only organising my own life, and my Fitbit tells me that month over month, my resting heart rate has dropped ten bpm.

It’s going to take a while to build my energy back up, and probably just as long to figure out what I want to do with the freedom I scraped rock bottom and fought to find. The point to the mammoth post is, I guess, that I’m damned lucky. I have that freedom. I have choices. I’ll fight to keep them, and now I know that what looked impossible in the beginning is perfectly doable if I really have to.

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