June 14, 2013

Ideas for keeping your data safer from spying

By Raphael Satter / The Associated Press

LONDON — 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.

click image to enlarge

In this undated photo made available by Google, hundreds of fans funnel hot air from the computer servers into a cooling unit to be recirculated at a Google data center in Mayes County. Okla. The green lights are the server status LEDs on the from of the servers.

AP

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. agency.

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 more concerned.

Here are some basic tips to avoid having your personal life turned into an intelligence report:

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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.

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Use TOR

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 onion reference.

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.

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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 at home.

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.

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