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“I don’t want to give out my phone number” — A gendered security issue

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I’d just given a talk and was having a nice chat with a young man who was doing similar work and wanted to stay in touch.

“Great, just give me your Signal number,” he said.

I hesitated. I’ve been using Signal for several years, since it was TextSecure. It’s by far the most trusted messaging app in my circles, and although it’s been slow to catch up to WhatsApp and other tools when it comes to fancy features, I use just as much among friends.

But Signal—as well as WhatsApp and Viber—require you to register with and use your phone number as an identifier. What this means practically is that when I meet someone with whom I wish to connect on one of these apps, I have to give them my phone number for them to be able to message me. Other apps, including Wire and Telegram (the latter of which I do not recommend at all), allow you to connect using a handle of your choosing.

I’ve been thinking about this as a security issue for awhile. As a woman, handing out my phone number to a stranger creates a moderate risk: What if he calls me in the middle of the night? What if he harasses me over SMS? What if I have to change my number to get away from him?

I’m not so surprised that the mostly-male developers of these tools didn’t consider these risks. They’ve focused carefully on ensuring that their encryption works (which is key), that their user-verification models are usable and make sense, and I’m grateful for that…but I still don’t want to give my phone number out to a stranger.

Luckily, I have a workaround, and a policy recommendation for app developers. Let’s start with the latter:

Allow users to create alias handles

I’m not a technologist, but I’ve asked around, and a number of smart friends have suggested that it wouldn’t be so hard for apps like Signal to allow for aliases. What do I mean? Well, imagine that young man at the conference had asked me for my Signal, but instead of giving him my number, I could give him a temporary or permanent handle associated with my account. Registration wouldn’t change—my Signal would still be tied to my phone number—but the public-facing identifier could be the phone number or an alias of my choosing.

I don’t know why this hasn’t been done, but I’d love to know. Perhaps the men running these teams simply haven’t thought of it?

A workaround to protect your phone number

A few years ago, I discovered a way to use Signal and WhatsApp while keeping them disconnected from the SIM I carry with me in my phone. It requires you to purchase a second SIM card (I use a pay-as-you-go that I top up every couple of months). Here’s how you do it:

1. Put your secondary SIM card in your regular phone and register your Signal account to that number.
2. After it’s registered, take that SIM card out and put your regular one back in. Do not change your Signal account to that number.

You’ll want to hold on to the SIM card, and make sure it stays operational, because if the number goes back out onto the market, someone can register a new account with it, thus kicking you off of yours (seriously, this happened to a friend in Lebanon, where numbers go back onto the market frequently).

You can treat the secondary number as a public number (mine is on my business cards, and I keep the SIM in an old Nokia so I can take work calls on it), or as your own little secret.

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10 days ago
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Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Apocalypse Soon

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Click here to go see the bonus panel!

New plan - win lottery, have Abby Howard draw all of my comics.

New comic!
Today's News:

Hey geeks! We're doing this little crossover thing to celebrate Abby's new book, which features properly protofeathered dinosaurs. Check it out!

PS: She'll also be doing an AMA today on reddit.

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11 days ago
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14 days ago
Yesssss, more Abby is always good

Philosophy Infomercial

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18 days ago
Very good summary of what philosophy does to a mind.
11 days ago
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21 days ago
This is...oddly parallel to real-life experiences I had with philosophy.
Los Angeles, CA

AI And The Sudden Skyscrapers In The Brain


I’m not sold on AI.  Machine learning is one thing.  General artificial intelligence is something I have problems with, on several levels.  Inorganic Intelligence is probably a less sexy term.  Or perhaps even Machine Cognition.  There always seems to be assumptions around self-reflective consciousness in AI discussion, particularly when the likes of Elon Musk are working the room for reputational means leading to fresh money.

We don’t understand how organic consciousness works.  Frankly, we don’t have a great understanding of how human cognition works, given that we only recently found out that human neuronal cliques perform cognition in eleven-dimensional mathematical structures.  I’m not putting a capstone atop “things humans can do” – it’s entirely possible that one day we will figure out how that all works and find ways to emulate it in machines. But it ain’t on a Ray Kurzweil tineframe.

The other half of that argument, of course, is that we wished to emulate the flight of birds, but 747s don’t flap their wings up and down.  We find other ways to emulate the condition of that we covet.  So there may be ways to achieve general artificial intelligence with awareness who decide to exterminate us all because we keep trying to fuck them like Japanese sex robots.

In a couple of months I have to go and talk coherently about all this to people in a remote location in Norway, so it’s time to start sorting it out in my own head.


Just received: LIFE 3.0, Max Tegmark (UK) (US)


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22 days ago
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Netizen Report: New Research Tests Facebook’s Digital ‘On Ramp’ for Developing Countries

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Cyber cafe in Rosso, Mauritania. Photo by Cyrus Farivar via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

This week Global Voices released an original research report on Free Basics, an app built by Facebook that is intended to serve as an “on ramp” to using the global internet.

Now active in 63 countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America, the app does not get users onto the global internet, but rather gives them access to Facebook and a handful of online services, ranging from ESPN and Disney to BBC and Wikipedia, all free of charge. In their promotional materials for the program, Facebook posits that: “[by] introducing people to the benefits of the internet” they will help justify the cost of mobile data and thereby “bring more people online and help improve their lives.”

A group of Global Voices contributors decided to test their theory this past spring, by using the app ourselves. We conducted case studies in Colombia, Ghana, Kenya, Mexico, Pakistan and the Philippines, evaluating Free Basics against usability and open internet benchmarks that we developed in consultation with experts from the ICT and internet policy communities.

Among other findings, we documented substantial shortcomings of the app in the area of localization. No version of the program tested in our study adequately served the linguistic needs of the local population. In heavily multilingual countries including Pakistan and Philippines, the app is offered in only one local language. In Ghana, the version of the app offered by Tigo was available only in English. And while Free Basics features a number of corporate services based in the US, it includes relatively few sites catering to local issues and needs. Outside of the Philippines, the versions we tested offered no public service sites, and remarkably few independent media sites.

In an interview about the research, Philippines researcher and Global Voices Southeast Asia editor Mong Palatino told The Guardian:

The advertising implies that it’s free internet, but then you actually use it and it’s not really the full internet. It misleads the public and makes them think these sites and services are the essential tools.

Read the full report here.

Independent news sites censored in South Sudan

On July 24, authorities in South Sudan instituted what appears to be a partial block of access to four websites, arguing that the Sudan Tribune, Radio Tamazuj, and the blogs Nyamilepedia and Paanluel Wel had published “subversive” content. The editor in chief of the Sudan Tribune, Mohamed Nagi, said of the block “We see this decision as a new attack on the press freedom in the South Sudan.”

Journalists in South Sudan have faced increasing threats following the return of violent conflict in the country. Just last week, the director of South Sudan’s public broadcaster, Adil Faris Mayat, was detained because he did not broadcast a presidential speech live. The Minister of Information said the bans on the sites would be lifted when “those institutions behave well.”

Kyrgyzstan bans the Internet Archive for ‘extremist materials’

A court in Kyrgyzstan blocked the Internet Archive, claiming that it stores extremist content. Archive.org claims to have archived almost 300 billion web pages, and stores free to use books and music. The state communications service did not specify what specific web pages triggered the block.

Russia’s censorship spree continues

Russia’s lower house of parliament voted for a series of censorship laws during a spree in mid-July, issuing prohibitions on messaging services that forbid users to communicate anonymously, outlawing VPNs, proxies, and anonymizers, and requiring search engines to hide links to blocked sites. The laws must now be approved by Russia’s upper house of parliament before being signed in to law by President Vladimir Putin. The messaging app Viber has already indicated it plans to comply fully with Russian legislation.

Authorities release Russian math instructor to house arrest

Russian web developer Dmitry Bogatov was released on house arrest after being detained for three months while under investigation for inciting violence. Authorities allege that he posted comments to online forums in Russia encouraging people to go to the Red Square to riot, but their only evidence for this is his IP address. Bogatov runs a technical exit node of the Tor network, which allows people to browse the web anonymously, and could also have led to the use of his identity by another person.

Amazonians dispute domain name claims by Amazon Inc.

Amazon.com recently applied for ownership of the top-level web internet domain name, .amazon. The application was contested by several Latin American countries in the region of the Amazon river and rainforest, who argued that this would appropriate the name of the Amazon region. On these grounds, the internet naming authority (ICANN) rejected the application. This week, independent review panel ruled that in rejecting the application, ICANN failed to follow “clear, pre-specified and objective rules.” A group of experts and stakeholders from the region issued a signed statement in response, asking that parties not stake claims upon their name without hearing the people of the region first.

Critiquing both parties involved, the statement reads:

We have faces, names, content, history. Using our name to tell another story, a company’s history, would de-characterize us? Likely not. We will not disappear…However, using our name without acknowledging our importance is certainly a mistake. Using our name refers directly to a vast land of rich diversity, with much to uncover and with many cultural gems already discovered. So if using our name, at least acknowledge us, respect us.

New Research



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23 days ago
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We Want Our Refugees and Exiles to Be Victims

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I was supposed to be writing about a refugee in Istanbul. Then she disappeared. Most of them do disappear now and again. Then I had to disappear myself. So I am now the subject of this text, although I am not a refugee, but in self-imposed exile, or a seemingly self-imposed exile. Does the terminology matter if you feel the constant heartache of that Syrian woman, talking to a journalist on the Turkish coast upon her arrival last summer, saying, “I wish I was dead so my pride would not be broken like this?”

Pride is the one basic need an exile or refugee must supply for themselves. There’s no refugee center or NGO that can help you with that. You find these things out while learning that living is far more complicated than not dying.

Is there an honorable way of dealing with the reality of being obliged to leave your home? Or is the question of pride a luxury available only to those able to whine eloquently about it? What happens to the exiles who do not have the fancy words that I do? They become numbers. Numbers are crossing the Mediterranean right now. And by the way, some numbers are drowning in the sea. Look, there they are! Other numbers are making it to shore. Surviving numbers are even applying for “papers.” Now these numbers have to live. They have to recover their names.

There is a page on the UNHCR web page called “Refugees Who Have Made a Difference.” There are only 20 profiles listed. So the thousands of others who drowned in the ocean remain nameless numbers, even those who survived the journey remain anonymous. Those who succeed in crossing the Mediterranean are obliged to go on another difficult journey to become a person.

I’m amazed people do not obsess about the possibility of coming across a dead body on a Mediterranean beach while swimming on their summer holidays, of touching those refugees who could not “make a difference.”

I am not a number. I have my name printed on books in several languages. I have people asking me: “What title do you prefer in front of your name? Author or author and journalist?” But even I’ve become a known-off-by-heart paragraph now: “who lost her job due to the political oppression and had to leave Turkey” etc . . . This little paragraph that I drag along behind me supposedly tells the most important thing about me, with the rest of me supplied on demand to keener enthusiasts.

Times of oppression create the spectacular oppressor and the spectacular victim. I am now supposed to fill the shoes of this person called “the victim.” It is a full-time job, a non-stop act. Like a refugee waiting for a piece of bread with a stupid ticket in her hands, I should be ready to perform my victimhood whenever the act is called to the intellectual stage. I am now obliged to tell a story, but only the one particular story, the stupid story of my suffering that I hold like a ticket for my passage to the civilized world. I am so ill-suited to the role that at one point, at a Front Line Club book event in London, when a woman from the audience, holding her hands together with the graciousness of the Pope washing the feet of the poor, asks me, “So what CAN WE do for you?” I answer: “I feel like a baby panda that you’re trying to adopt on a website!”

Nobody laughs.

The victim should be the victim but nothing else. Otherwise it becomes confusing for the audience. Be a number. Be a paragraph.


“I am now obliged to tell a story, but only the one particular story, the stupid story of my suffering that I hold like a ticket for my passage to the civilized world.”


I remember this man from Somalia I met in a refugee camp on the Tunisian-Libyan border. It was right after Gaddafi had been killed and I was in the middle of the desert interviewing people, all from Black Africa. I was asking the same questions over and over again, “Do you have enough water to meet your daily needs?” “Do you have enough food to eat?” etc . . . And this man, smiling the most sarcastic smile I’ve ever seen, asked me in perfect English, “I see it doesn’t occur to you to ask me do I have a CV.” He was kind and mature enough to smile in a friendly way when he saw I was mortified by my own shallowness. Now I imitate the same smile to audiences when they are confused by my silly jokes, my defying the cliché of the suffering exile.

I have started doing normal things that I never actually did before. The supermarket Billa, in Zagreb, is giving away tiny stickers. If you collect enough stickers you can buy a cooking pan half-price. I neither need the pan nor have the patience to collect stamps. Besides, I’ve never been decisive enough to pursue such goals, which actually require considerable determination. But since I’m pretending these are not extraordinary times, I do the normal thing and buy the pan with the stickers, along with my middle-class entry pass: the supermarket loyalty card. I am now not only a victim. I am now a distinguished member of the Billa shopping crowd. I keep the card in the see-through part of my wallet, covering up my Turkish driver’s license. There you go, I couldn’t be more normal. I now have a brand new, gentler form of identity. I am a Billa person, not an exile.

In fact, my new identity is as a citizen of “Screen-Nation.” This is a supra-nation with citizens from chaotic countries who are spread about in Western countries. We look like new-generation Celtic warriors, our blue faces glued to flickering screens: computers, TVs, smartphones. Our physical beings are in different countries but our unquenchable thirst is for news from our countries of origin.

The TV is spouting news about Turkey. After hours of unblinking concentration, I finally manage to tear my face from the screen and lean out the window to smoke. From my belly down I am in the room, from my belly up I am in Zagreb. An absent-minded magician forgot to put my pieces back together after cutting me in two.

One of the things I’m learning is that arrogance is the best remedy for broken pride. If you’ve had your pride broken, put lots of arrogance balm on it and eventually you’ll become a different person, a person you might have hated back home. I already know how easy it is to mistake wounds for organs and unwittingly use those wounds as if they were healthy body parts. This is a different version of that. I’ve added a body part to myself, a clumsy, prosthetic arrogance organ. I’ve done this by way of reaction, because arrogance is the one thing you’re not allowed to have if you’re an exile. You are obliged to be more humble than you have ever been before because you need help. So I am laying claim to the forbidden and being arrogant nonetheless.

It makes everybody angry, even the most tender souls trying to help me. It would have made me angry too, but this is me, trying to find a way to exist unlike any other exile who has walked the planet. I say, “I prefer not to,” and explore a Bartleby-style exile, as if there is such a thing. It makes people angry and sooner or later they tell me so. And then I’m happy because anger is the one and only emotion that can save you from being pigeonholed as a “victim” in their eyes. And I know this is as stupid as the supermarket stickers. But I’m just trying to find my own way, as doubtless millions of others have. I claim a better defeat.

I have always been compassionately furious with Walter Benjamin. “You fool, how could you have left it so late to leave? How could you, genius that you were, I mean how could you not have seen it coming?” I am not asking these questions any more. Because now here I am, out of the country. Not too late, on the contrary, clever enough to have maybe been too early. However, you still poison yourself. Not with the same poison that Benjamin used to commit suicide on the Spanish border, perhaps, but with a variety of different ones. Invisible poisons.

Lately Stefan Zweig, who committed suicide in 1942, has also been getting on my nerves. Why didn’t you just grit your teeth and bear it for three more years and then it would all have been over? But I also know that in order to survive exile, you cut out a piece from your heart. Your heart becomes a new sculpture, one longing for the rock that it came out of. Leaving home is an irreversible act. Even when your home calls you back with loving arms, your heart, by now missing a vital piece, cannot hear the call. All it elicits is a phantom ache for the missing part, a reminder that your heart is no longer whole.

I now understand how and why a person can commit suicide. I am not the type, though. But just in case, I’m taking my Vitamin Bs. They are the new anti-depressants and available without prescription, convenient for the exile.


“In order to survive exile, you cut out a piece from your heart.”


The articles I write for international media, every single one of them, appear with a picture of Erdogan, the Turkish president. All of a sudden we are a duo, like David and Goliath, or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. His face is becoming the face of my country and my name inseparable from his face on newspaper pages. I find this funny somehow. Not for me, but for him. Though I am pretty sure he doesn’t laugh when he reads what I write.

I am also pretty sure that, at the current rate that worldwide political insanity is sweeping the planet, all the intellectuals of the world might soon be refugees. I am listening to Meryl Streep’s speech during the Hollywood Foreign Press Awards. She cries when she talks about the crudeness and cruelty of Trump. Anyone in the world capable of feeling concern is touched. Myself included. And the next day Trump’s response is to say that Streep is “overrated.” When our eyes are still wet because of Streep’s speech, this vulgar response catches us off guard. The moment is symbolic of the current problem with the world. We are losing our hold of a fundamental agreement whereby if you speak to someone as a human, that human will, by default, respond in humane language.

So how can we escape such a clash of values? Where do you take refuge when the entire world decides to become a bully? Who is an exile when all countries become lands of vulgarity? Soon we will all be Syrian.

A few years ago, when I likewise had to leave the country, I asked myself: “What is a country?” My answer was that the country is a table and the abstract space which surrounds that table. The country is a moment. It is the moment when you make a spontaneous joke and your friends at the table laugh without need of further explanation, without needing the references explained. When someone says they miss their country, they mean they miss that moment at the table, rather than the vast space that surrounds it or the eternity surrounding the moment itself.

Now my jokes are nervous because I am creeping around the endless plateau that is English. It is a sneaky language. It deceives you with the illusion of knowing it, and then at the very moment  you feel confident and relax, it trips you up and jabs you with the tip of its sword, to remind you that you are a commoner who will not be accepted at Court, ever. The people seated at my table are already scattered about the world anyway. In different countries, in different lines at supermarket counters, they stand on their own wondering whether to say yes or no to the person at the counter who asks every time: “Would you like the supermarket loyalty card?”

The people who once sat at my table were artists, musicians, writers and actors, people who are now trying to figure out the practicalities of living in a new country while deciding whether to make a spectacle out of their victimhood through art. Every one of us now has a new table in a different land. My table is a small black one that I bought at Ikea. And just as Thor Heyerdahl once built Kon-Tiki, I built it myself. Heyerdahl and his five friends were trying to prove that people from South America might once have sailed with balsa wood rafts to Polynesia to form settlements. On my Kon-Tiki, as the sole member of crew, I am exploring the possibility of crossing the waters of victimhood with my pride intact. If I manage it, it will prove that people once travelled through interesting times and built settlements on the brighter side of history.

If I were a story, this period of my life might have been the best part. But I am a person. How unfortunate.


About Refugees Worldwide

In Summer 2016, the project “Refugees Worldwide” was founded as part of the International Literature Festival Berlin. “Refugees Worldwide” seeks to collect and convey experiences, impressions and information about different refugee situations, both in a European and non-European context. The central aim of the project is to transform public discourse about migration from a Eurocentric-leaning perspective to a more global one. In order to achieve this, 14 authors travelled to crisis points in particular countries to understand more deeply the situation facing refugees and displaced peoples there; following this period of research, the authors wrote up their research into literary travelogues. The project had its first public appearance in Autumn 2016 in the form of an event and discussion during the International Literature Festival Berlin (ilb).

A German anthology of the texts will be published at the end of August by Wagenbach Verlag; an English anthology by Ragpicker Press will follow on September 7th. Both anthologíes will be launched with an event and discussion on 10th September 2017 at the 17th International Literature Festival Berlin.

A pre-purchase crowdfunding campaign has been set up to cover printing costs of the English anthology. Proceeds from the publication of the book will be donated to Refugees International. To support this campaign, please click here.

The project has been funded by the Fondation Jan Michalski and the German Federal Foreign Office. Find more information here.

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23 days ago
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