Search-proof your devices when traveling

Over-eager airport security has recently taken to making travelers unlock their phones and tables for examination. This is both unforgivably invasive and trivially easy to defeat. Here’s how to protect your data1 on your iPhone or iPad2 when traveling.

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Rebooting

I started this blog twelve years ago. I always meant to update it regularly, but… life intervenes. After recently coming back to it, I decided it was due for a good cleaning. There were lots of old articles about things I no longer care about but that people on the Internet keep visiting and linking to. I kept them. But there were also a lot of opinion pieces that I no longer agree with. Their disposition was a harder decision. The possibility of deleting them felt dishonest, like I was denying ever holding those beliefs. Conversely, this blog isn’t a diary (I have a separate one of those) or a public record (I just write stuff every now and then).

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Migrating off Evernote

In late 2016, Evernote updated their privacy policy to explicitly grant their employees the right to view your personal information. In their own words:

And please note that you cannot opt out of employees looking at your content for other reasons stated in our Privacy Policy (under the section, “Does Evernote Share My Personal Information or Content?”).

This is unacceptable for most of the things you’d want to use a note taking application for, and I believe that makes it wholly unfit for any kind of business or private use. The good news is that there are viable alternatives now. These are the options I particularly like:

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Electronics Kit for my Kids

Cory Doctorow mentioned that Elenco makes a perfect copy of the Radio Shack 200-in-One electronics kit. I hadn’t read to the end of his article before I’d placed an order.

It’s not an exaggeration to say this kit pushed me into my career. I got the original Radio Shack version for Christmas one year when I was a kid, and on rainy days I’d work my way through the book of kid-friendly projects. Even though I usually didn’t understand how they worked, I got brave enough to test ideas like “I wonder if I could wire a light bulb into this section and have it still work?” and “what happens if I replace this with a smaller resistor?” I didn’t know what ohms or farads were, but got an intuitive feel for which parts did what. I lost any fear of experimenting and that willingness to try new things has served me well.

I don’t know if my kids will love this little kit as much as I did. I’m not going to push it – that’s for them to decide. However, a part of me hopes they have even half the fun I got from it.

We had a scary basement

When I was a kid, my parents had a horror movie basement. It was unfinished, poorly lit, and apparently designed to terrorize kids. It was divided into three approximately equally sized rooms:

The wooden, backless staircase from upstairs dropped you into the first. It was mostly OK, but the only light switch was on the far wall away from the base of the stairs, so you had to feel around in the dark to turn on the lights. This is where my parents put the piano I had to practice every day.

The second was separated from the first by a long wall with two large cutout “doors”. One of the doors let into a storage room where we kept canned foods, the furnace, and an opening toward the third portion of the basement. The second was mostly storage. For reasons never told to me, this door was covered with a blue velvet curtain you had to push through, and once inside you had to feel around in the dark for the pull string bulb. The far side of it also opened into the farthest section.

The back part was somehow the least creepy, even though it’s where we stored antiques and my dad’s wood shop. It still had those stupid pullstring lights, though, until you got to the far-far wall where there were switches for the fluorescents over the table saw and lathe.

Digression: my dad’s favorite game was “let the kids watch scary movies, then send them to the basement on errands”. It played out like this: little Kirk is watching The Shining on TV. It’s over and his dad says, “hey, I need to fix this remote. Go get my screwdriver, would you?” He gulps and goes down the basement stairs – the ones without backs so a bathtub woman could reach through them and pull him down to hell. He leaves the pool of light at the bottom, walks across the concrete, and gropes in panic for the switch. He finds it, then pushes through the velvet curtain which immediately falls shut behind him and leaves him in pitch black. Heart racing, he finds the pullstring. Light. He sort of sees the next pullstring farther back, so he sprints to it and yanks it. He yanks too hard and it fails to light, bouncing back upward and landing on top of a chest of drawers. He jumps until he can pull the string back down and yank it again. The light comes on and the demons withdraw back to the shadows. He more cautiously slinks over to the back wall, turns on the overheads, finds the screwdriver, and rests in relative safety for a few breaths. OK, time to retreat. He sets himself in a sprinter’s pose, reaches back to hit the switches, and darts back to the drawstring. Makes it. Does the same setup-switch-sprint combo to make it to the next pullstring safely. Tugs it and darts through the velvety cloak into light again. Pants. Goes to the wall switch, steels himself, and flicks it off. Leaps toward the stairs to hear his laughing dad turn off the light at the top and close the basement door. Climbs a flight in approximately .2 seconds, opening the door and bounding through it in one practiced motion. Sees Dad who examines the screwdriver carefully:

“I needed a Phillips. Go get it.”

My dad was really a great guy, but he’d been through a war and ended up as a mortician. His good intentions were that his kids would get desensitized to their own internal fears and live as carefree adults, free of the dumb little phobias that nag us all. Did it work? You bet it didn’t! But he tried.

Anyway.

So the basement was a horror story set, and yet it’s the one we had so we went with it. During daylight, you could start at the stairs, rollerskate past the furnace into Dad’s shop, loop back around and shoot through the velvet curtain, and go again for another lap around. That was pretty cool.

One un-daylit evening I was downstairs practicing the piano with my little dog sleeping on the rug next to me. I was plinking away until she stood up and stared into the black maw of the furnace room, hackles raising. I stopped. She didn’t. She crept an inch forward, then another, growling, then exploded into barking fury and raced into the back.

I sat on the bench, petrified.

Still barking furiously, she followed my skating path, dashed back into the room with me, rounded the corner, and tore back off into the back.

My breath and heart had stopped. I was frozen in space and time.

My protective pup ran two more laps and raced one last time into the back.

And then “it” growled, low, guttural, and loud. She screamed in pain, reversed course to shoot past me, and flew up the stairs to safety.

I sat there, in the same dark basement with the thing that drove my dog into a frenzy before hurting her into abandoning me. My heart beat once, then twice. I erupted into a panicked explosion of terrified kid and somehow made it upstairs and locked the door in a single motion. I found my little dog, two long clawmarks across her face.

My parents came home and I told my dad what happened. He was afraid an animal had gotten in, but we went around with a flashlight and a shotgun. All of the windows were locked shut as usual, and there were no signs that anything could have gnawed through the concrete walls. Something hurt my doggy, though, and I didn’t have to practice piano after sunset for a while after that until Dad forgot the whole thing and we fell back into the old routines.

You think your basement was creepy? You don’t know what that word means. I have stories.

My phone was Lyfted

My son needed a ride to a Boy Scout campout yesterday and neither Jen nor I were home to take him. I had the idea to call a Lyft driver for him. My son accidentally left his phone in the Lyft car and this is the timeline of what happened as we tried to get it back. I’ll call the driver “Joe”:

5:09PM: I book a ride through the Lyft app. Joe picks up my son.
5:21PM: Joe drops off my son at the destination.
5:25PM: Jen calls me to say that my son left his phone in Joe’s car. She is home now.
5:29PM: I use the “Lose something?” link in the Lyft app to report this to Joe. Joe never replies.

For the next 45 minutes, we watch my son’s iPhone on “Find My Friends” and see Joe’s car parked right across from where my son was dropped off (but my son had already left again so he couldn’t go get it). I don’t worry yet because I’ve already reported the loss and I assume Joe will be a decent person and return the phone. I try a couple of times to request another Lyft ride, hoping that Joe will come back to my house so we could get the phone. Other drivers accept the requests but I cancel them because I only wanted Joe, not another ride.

6:13PM: My wife calls the phone but it goes straight to voicemail.
6:23PM: Starting to get nervous, I take a screenshot of “Find My Friends” to have a record of its last known location. (This comes up later.) Shortly after this, the phone disappears from “Find My Friends”.
6:56PM: Worried now, after much frantic search I find that I can contact Lyft through Twitter. I do so. We have a slow, agonizing conversation because it takes the Twitter person many minutes to reply after each of my messages. They tell me I can’t call Lyft’s contact phone number because that’s only for emergencies.
7:56PM: I use Lyft’s website to file two missing item reports: one to the Lost & Found department, and another one to the “Lose something?” link. Lyft explains that they only get messages explicitly sent to the Lost & Found department, that the “Lose something?” link goes directly to the driver, and that Lyft’s customer service doesn’t have access to those messages.
7:58PM: Joe texts me. He miraculously got this message, just not the one I sent at 5:29PM. He tells me he looked for the phone but didn’t find it. I reply that I watched it drive around Alameda. He said he got another request from my home address for a Lyft. I reply that I was trying to get him to come back to my house so I could recover the phone. I also told him where I last saw my son’s phone on “Find My Friends”. Joe replies that this is where he lives.
8:06PM: Joe calls me and we talk. He says he looked but couldn’t find it. I ask him to look under the seats. He says it’s not there. I said I will have to call the police to make a report for insurance and ask if he will be willing to talk to them to help me. He gets very agitated and defensive. I assure him that I’m not blaming him but might need his help. Suddenly he changes his story to say he has taken two rides since my son. I say, “oh man, that’s too bad. Now I’ll definitely have to make a police report.” Then he changes the story again to say he’s taken “several” rides, including one to the airport, and that one of those people must have it.
8:13PM: I call the Alameda police department to report it stolen. An officer cames out a little later and I give her all this information. She’ll be contacting him if she hasn’t already.

I like to believe the best of people and I kept reassuring myself and my wife by saying, “oh, it’s wedged up under his seat or something”. But this paints a really, really bad picture for Joe:

  • Why didn’t he reply to the 5:29PM message I sent through Lyft? We’d already texted my son’s phone several times by then and Joe had to have heard it. By the time I first reported it as lost, Joe knew the phone was still in his car. There’s no way he didn’t.
  • The phone’s last known location was at Joe’s house, which was only a few blocks away from where he took my son. That’s by Joe’s own words. That’s where the phone was when it went offline – not off cruising through the city. I watched “Find My Friends” the whole time and it was only two places before it stopped responding: my son’s destination and Joe’s house. It certainly wasn’t at any airport.
  • Why did the phone go offline a couple of minutes after my wife called it while it was sitting at Joe’s house?

The police will draw their own conclusions and they may or may not get it back. I don’t know. All I know is that my son is out his Christmas present, it disappeared from Joe’s possession, Joe ignored my first attempts to recover it, and it was turned off while it was parked at Joe’s house right after Jen called it. The only plausible explanation I can come up with is that Lyft’s driver is a lying thief and I’m out $600 because I chose to use their service. I can’t conclusively prove what happened, but I’m 100% convinced I’m right. There’s just no other answer that fits the evidence.

The worst part is that I gave Joe a 5 star review and a 20% tip before I knew what happened. That’s just adding insult to injury.

Information I gave the police

By the time the police officer visited, I had gathered up:

  • Joe’s picture from the Lyft receipt
  • A transcript of my text chat with Joe
  • A screenshot of “Find My Friends” showing the phone at Joe’s house
  • A transcript of my Twitter chat with Lyft
  • The phone’s serial number
  • This timeline

I have a stack of paperwork proving my side of the story. It’s not something I just made up.

Lyft through all this

For their part, Lyft’s support people have been very pleasant and as helpful as they could reasonably be. There are a few things I believe directly contributed to this outcome, though:

  • According to Lyft, the “Lost something?” link in the app and in email receipts goes directly to the driver. It does not go to Lyft. They had no record that I’d attempted to contact the driver.
  • They only offer phone support for emergency accident situations. The only other form of interactive help I found was via Twitter. In this situation, every minute counted and it took a long time to get the conversation started.
  • Once engaged with Twitter, the average response time between when I sent them a message and they replied to it was 7.5 minutes. Again, when time is of the essence those silent minutes stretched out long.
  • Lyft’s privacy policy reasonably and fairly prevents them from sharing information about Joe’s other rides without a court order. I stand behind that policy. It’s good. However, I wish they could confirm whether Joe actually drove to the airport last night. I don’t believe that would be a violation of Lyft’s riders’ privacy because it could only reveal that some person in this part of the city went to the airport. Statistically, that’s a certainty anyway. It would also not be a violation of Joe’s privacy because he volunteered the information; Lyft would only be confirming what he had already stated.

I think they could make changes that would help resolve such situations more quickly and satisfactorily:

  • Provide a non-emergency customer service phone number so that riders can engage Lyft support more quickly when necessary.
  • Log “Lost something?” messages to riders’ accounts so that support is more quickly aware of urgent situations.
  • Provide additional online communications channels like web chat. I love Twitter and use it often but that’s a poor primary support method. I can imagine how frustrating it would have been to have had to sign up for a Twitter account before I could start a conversation with Lyft.
  • Hire more support employees. The support staff I spoke with was very polite and helpful but I got the mental image of three well-meaning but overworked employees trying to help 40 people at once.
  • Mostly importantly, stop offering ride requests to drivers as soon as something is reported missing. When I first used the “Lost something?” link, Joe was still parked within a short distance of where he’d dropped my son off. If Lyft had a “take the driver offline until they respond” policy, this whole episode could have ended 8 minutes after it began. There would have been no question of what happened because no one else would have been in the car, and Joe would have had an incentive to reply because he would have stopped earning money.

These changes would go a long way toward making a highly stressful situation a little more bearable. I would have felt I was working with Lyft instead of in spite of them.

Update

Day two

10:12AM: Lyft contacts me to explain their privacy policy. They also inform me that it’s against Lyft’s policies for unaccompanied minors to use the service. I didn’t know that. As a driver, though, I presume Joe knew Lyft’s rules. I guess he’s OK with breaking all sorts of rules when he can benefit.