Electronic Communication in High-Risk Foreign Territories

That title sounds way more formal than it should.

About six months ago, several people hosted a party for a friend returning from a very dangerous country in North Africa. Several friends there had been through the process of using code names during the course of their missionary work, and one common theme kept appearing:

“They read your emails.”

I frowned. How would you even know a government was reading your email? “Oh, they do.”

I didn’t want to be a jerk, so I didn’t press the issue too hard, and it was actually a pretty interesting conversation, but as a technical person, I’m not content with those sorts of answers. It is common for people to ascribe powers to governments that either do not exist or only exist in very limited contexts.

Now, playing it safe doesn’t ever hurt (or does it?). I’m not so bold in my knowledge of technology that I would say, “Yeah, sure, go ahead and talk about Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit. Feel free to announce which cities you are in and what sort of missionary work you are doing and when.” Here are some thoughts on this subject:

  • There is nothing that inherently connects you to your email address. You can create an account for John Doe 999 or anything on gmail and Google isn’t going to know any better. They can correlate the IP address you are registering from, but you can register through an anonymizer or go to a coffee shop and register from their network.
  • Governments can’t (yet) break AES. Seriously, if your connection is encrypted, you’re pretty solid. Now, this can be circumvented if you are using a browser or computer that has been tampered with. In this situation, if you login to your email from that location others can potentially ‘see’ what you access. But this is a very particular situation and is a separate issue from the government having access to your email. In this case, you technically give them access. It is also different from them reading your emails or even having access to the emails that you do not open.
  • You can’t court-order information from a company that does not operate within your jurisdiction. This one is almost a no-brainer. However, many countries operate together. Beware the gag order. But you have to be kidding me if you think governments have the time and budget to court-order access to every traveler within their borders. They do profile people, however, but limited budgets means you have to be a big fish to turn up on the radar.

Another note: it’s great to be security-conscious about what you are sending through email, but I have yet to hear anybody talk about deleting sensitive words from all of their previous emails. In the discussions I have heard, it is always about what you are actively sending. It depends what you truly believe by “they read your emails.” See how this gets very technical very fast?

Anyway, this has been on my mind lately and I’d like to do more research. Time permitting, it would be really fun to put together a paper outlining the research and some solid conclusions that can be used in the field.


End of an Era

It’s painful to feel the rawness of a community’s end. It’s easy to want to blame somebody or brand the former days as the better, but that’s all nonsense.

Two years ago, I began participating in a church in Aurora as part of a Sunday night Bible study. It was full of people involved in various ministries who would come together to share what God had been doing in their lives, and it was a tremendous breath of fresh air. I did not know many of the people, so I often sat in the corner, but it was the sort of corner-sitting that left you feeling welcome and accepted, and it was tremendously hospitable just hearing the words of those who hungered and thirsted for the Lord.

Some left and then others, arguments happened,  groups shifted, and it all fizzled out. But I kept going on Friday nights and made several friends. I was still excited to be a part of a community that wanted to make a difference. I guess I kept telling myself things would improve, but they never really did. One by one my friends disappeared, and several times I would turn up only to find one or two people I knew. Last week it became clear to me that the community was gone. I attended their Christmas party tonight, but it will likely be the last.

It’s extremely difficult to find people who are interested in the things that I am. There is, of course, the internet, but I’ve never been a fan of chatroom discussions and long-distance friendships. I never understood why more of my peers didn’t want to really do something with their lives, so fitting in at church has always been difficult. There are plenty who want to be missionaries, but not many who want to use their professional skills to do missions. And if you want a good sociological discussion, you’re an extreme minority.

I just want to fit in, to feel like I belong. I want a community I can call my own. I guess we never completely get that. I’m not really sure what the future holds. My current church is good, but I don’t feel a great deal of resonance with their vision, at least not yet. They might be going to Nepal again this next fall, so maybe God has some plan for me yet in the midst of this.

It’s the end of an era, and I’m sad. I don’t want to think about how change can be good and how we grow, or about how sometimes it isn’t wrong when things fall apart. Right now I just want to face the questions inside, or scream the litanies I prepare for myself in fake conversations. Were I a better man, I could probably handle this more admirably, but for now I’ll accept it for what it is.


Global Orphan Population

orphanpopulationmap4Several years ago, one of my friends put together a blog on orphans, as orphans are very close to her heart. Although I cannot say the same, I had taken several mapping courses in college and had wanted to apply my mapping skills to something socially active, so I pounced on the chance to construct a Sqlite database that contained orphan population data for each country.

What was most astonishing was that the data did not already exist. UNICEF publishes these kinds of statistics, but for half of the countries, it seems, there was no data on the orphan population. In my database I started recording the sources of each figure because metadata and accuracy are so very important when building out maps like this. And I don’t believe the problem is happening at the UN level, I believe it is happening at the state level. We cannot be sure these administrations have the budget or even the resources to accurately assess these statistics.

To be fair, tackling any statistic about an entire country must be incredibly difficult. Statisticians rely on data models to produce reasonably sound estimates, but actual person-by-person counting is impossible. Statistics may be easier to gather as the information age continues to blossom, but the United States can’t completely force people to submit their information in the census. The IRS is probably the only government structure with the budget to come close to forcing every individual to file their information, but even they do not have the budget to audit everyone.

All this to say, gathering statistics is extremely difficult. And I have seen widely varying figures for these orphan statistics, too. Some people disagree on the definition, and some countries disagree on who counts as a nation state! The United Nations list differs from the CIA World Factbook.

And, for those familiar with relational databases, the join in my query likely does not perfectly match the country names in my dataset. I found this out with the Democratic Republic of Congo, where one source had “Congo (Democratic Republic of the)” and the other had “Democratic Republic of the Congo”. Apparently there are a few ISO standards for each country, but getting people to adhere to those–to even know about those–cannot be an easy task.

I may look for a way to open-source my data table. Scouring the internet for figures on each country is not easy. Tackling each continent separately is probably a better approach.


It is generally considered bad practice to include more than five or six ranges on an Equal Interval map such as this, but I chose to break it down into groups of 500,000 because there is so much variance in the data. There are several enormous outliers, such as India and Kenya, and I did not want to mash these together with countries that actually have significantly fewer orphans.

Super Missions Man

I’m not super missions man.

The hardest part about quitting my job is feeling that all of my time must be dedicated to studying programming, security, and technology in general. I have books on Nepali and Arabic that have been languishing on my shelf from even before I left my job, but I feel that studying them is even less of a reality now. Don’t get me wrong. I love studying computer stuff. Heck, it’s why I quit my job, so I could pursue those areas of technology that most intrigue me. But let’s face it, there is another part of me that is dying inside.

I want to be careful how much I share in this blog because I want my friends to know me face to face, and I want them to get the privilege of seeing the real me, instead of all my stories existing publicly. However, I would like to share a little bit of this story.

At the end of a serious of spiritual events spanning several years, I found myself on the final hurdle of college majoring in Anthropology. The subject was the perfect fit for me, and I soaked it up. Even the classes that were less interesting I still valued. I figured that certainly God would call me overseas, and I even remember a few times pacing the geography section of the library praying for the right book to magically stand out. Nothing ever did.

Instead, God brought me to technology, beginning with my last job. I had the aptitude and even some experience, and I went a little crazy on how much I wanted to learn. That job is the reason my student loans are all paid, too. It was important enough that God asked me to stop working with a refugee group my friends at church and I were working with, and it’s why I left my job now. It’s also why I’ve been studying my brains out for the past month. It’s pretty clear that this will likely play a very large role in my life.

But I’m still interested in culture and world missions, even though none of this has allowed me to go overseas. It would have been easy to save up $1500 to go on some mission trip south of Texas, but the calling was never there, so I never went. And having never left the country, I guess it’s no wonder that I feel nobody takes me seriously when I say I’m interested in missions. Sometimes I’m jealous. My missions friends seem to have such purpose, but I can’t play God’s hand for him. I know better than that at this point in life. It drives me insane. I’ve worked with five ancient languages, two modern, I know my grammar and phonology, and I excel at memorizing complex scripts. “I can do this, you fools!” But the calling isn’t there. So I keep waiting.

So I guess here’s the deal. Do you want to be involved in missions? Prepare for nobody to care. Prepare for there to be no glory. Prepare for others to think you are a complete idiot. Prepare for them to think you need to be involved in every ministry available, prepare for them to question how seriously you take your faith, prepare for them to completely ignore you when you say you are interested in going on an extended short term mission trip (that’s a painful one, you will not get that story here). But here’s the deal: you do what God calls you to do. Don’t make up shit so you can feel righteous and holy. Don’t assume that God is asking more than he is. Don’t mistake your desire for adventure as a desire for outreach.

Most importantly, don’t think that you can’t make a difference just because others don’t believe you can.

I’m not super missions man. I’m just a guy. A software developer. And God can use me in whatever way he sees fit. And I want that.

Just needed to get that out. Maybe next post I’ll discourse on language, or maybe even post the map I built several years ago. You know, something related to what I created this blog for.