LONDON (AP) - Phone call logs, credit card records, emails, Skype chats,
Facebook message, and more: The precise nature of the NSA’s sweeping
surveillance apparatus has yet to be confirmed.
But given the revelations spilling out into the media, there hardly seems a
single aspect of daily life that isn’t somehow subject to spying by the U.S.
For some, it’s a matter of indifference who or what is rifling through their
electronic records. Others, mindful of spy agencies’ history of abuse, are
Here are some basic tips to avoid having your personal life turned into an
ENCRYPT YOUR EMAILS
Emails sent across the Web are like postcards. In some cases, they’re
readable by anyone standing between you and its recipient. That can include
your webmail company, your Internet service provider and whoever is tapped
into the fiber optic cable passing your message around the globe - not to
mention a parallel set of observers on the recipient’s side of the world.
To beat the snoops, experts recommend encryption, which scrambles messages
in transit, so they’re unreadable to anyone trying to intercept them.
Techniques vary, but a popular one is called PGP, short for “Pretty Good
Privacy.” PGP is effective enough that the U.S. government tried to block
its export in the mid-1990s, arguing that it was so powerful it should be
classed as a weapon.
Disadvantages: Encryption can be clunky. And to work, both parties have to
be using it.
Like emails, your travels around the Internet can easily be tracked by
anyone standing between you and the site you’re trying to reach. TOR, short
for “The Onion Router,” helps make your traffic anonymous by bouncing it
through a network of routers before spitting it back out on the other side.
Each trip through a router provides another layer of protection, thus the
Originally developed by the U.S. military, TOR is believed to work pretty
well if you want to hide your traffic from, let’s say, eavesdropping by your
local Internet service provider. And criminals’ use of TOR has so frustrated
Japanese police that experts there recently recommended restricting its use.
But it’s worth noting that TOR may be ineffective against governments
equipped with the powers of global surveillance.
Disadvantages: Browsing the web with TOR can be painfully slow. And some
services - like file swapping protocols used by many Internet users to share
videos and music - aren’t compatible.
DITCH THE PHONE
Your everyday cell phone has all kinds of privacy problems. In Britain, cell
phone safety was so poor that crooked journalists made a cottage industry
out of eavesdropping on their victims’ voicemails. In general, proprietary
software, lousy encryption, hard-to-delete data and other security issues
make a cell phone a bad bet for storing information you’d rather not share.
An even bigger issue is that cell phones almost always follow their owners
around, carefully logging the location of every call, something which could
effectively give the NSA a daily digest of your everyday life. Security
researcher Jacob Appelbaum has described cell phones as tracking devices
that also happen to make phone calls. If you’re not happy with the idea of
an intelligence agency following your footsteps across town, leave the phone
Disadvantages: Not having a cell phone handy when you really need it. Other
alternatives, like using “burner” phones paid for anonymously and discarded
after use, rapidly become expensive.
CUT UP YOUR
The Wall Street Journal says the NSA is monitoring American credit card
records in addition to phone calls. So stick to cash, or, if you’re more
adventurous, use electronic currencies to move your money around.
Disadvantages: Credit cards are a mainstay of the world payment system, so
washing your hands of plastic money is among the most difficult moves you
can make. In any case, some cybercurrency systems offer only limited
protection from government snooping and many carry significant risks. The
value of Bitcoin, one of the better-known forms of electronic cash, has
oscillated wildly, while users of another popular online currency, Liberty
Reserve, were left out of pocket after the company behind it was busted by
international law enforcement.
DON’T KEEP YOUR DATA
IN AMERICA OR WITH
U.S. companies are subject to U.S. law, including the Patriot Act, whose
interpretations are classified. Although the exact parameters of the PRISM
data mining program revealed by the Guardian and The Washington Post remain
up for debate, what we do know is that a variety of law enforcement
officials - not just at the NSA - can secretly demand your electronic
records without a warrant through an instrument known as a National Security
Letter. Such silent requests are made by the thousands every year.
If you don’t like the sound of PRISM, National Security Letters, or anything
to do with the Patriot Act, your best bet is to park your data in a European
country, where privacy protections tend to be stronger.
Disadvantages: Silicon Valley’s Internet service providers tend to be better
and cheaper than their foreign counterparts. What’s more, there’s no
guarantee that European spy agencies don’t have NSA-like surveillance
arrangements with their own companies. When hunting for a safe place to
stash your data, look for smaller countries with robust human rights
records. Iceland, long a hangout for WikiLeaks activists, might be a good
OF MALICIOUS SOFTWARE
If they can’t track it, record it, or intercept it, an increasing number of
spies aren’t shy about hacking their way in to steal your data outright.
Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, warned the Guardian that his agency had been
on a worldwide binge of cyberattacks.
“We hack everyone everywhere,” he said.
Former officials don’t appear to contradict him. Ex-NSA chief Michael Hayden
described it as “commuting to where the information is stored and extracting
the information from the adversaries’ network.” In a recent interview with
Bloomberg Businessweek, he boasted that “we are the best at doing it.
Malicious software used by hackers can be extremely hard to spot. But
installing an antivirus program, avoiding attachments, frequently changing
passwords, dodging suspicious websites, creating a firewall, and always
making sure your software is up to date is a good start.
Disadvantages: Keeping abreast of all the latest updates and warily scanning
emails for viruses can be exhausting.
SO WILL ALL THIS KEEP MY DATA SAFE FROM SPYING?
Using anonymity services and encryption “simply make it harder, but not
impossible for a dedicated investigator to link your activities together and
identify you,” Ashkan Soltani, an independent privacy and security
researcher, said in an email.
“Someone can always find you -- just depends on how motivated they are (and
how much information they have access to).”