The Informed

Snowden, The NSA and You: Part II

In Part I of this article, we discussed the moral and ethical issues surrounding our implicit acceptance of total population surveillance by the NSA and others. In Part II, we'll take a look at what actions and techniques we can all employ and what we need to understand to defend ourselves against this threat to our human rights.

The threat to our freedom of expressing ourselves without fear of our government labeling us a terrorist is growing larger every day. Despite the efforts of Snowden, Manning and others, the powers-that-be continue to spy on our every email, text message, phone call and internet search. Their budgets are mind-boggling (enough to eradicate poverty and injustice worldwide many, many times over) and their clandestine, back-room, illicit deals with the likes of Google, Apple, Facebook, Skype and a slew of others is akin to a novel about some dystopian future where things have gone terribly wrong. But there is good news: the power to take back the Internet and your communication with your colleagues and loved-ones freely and openly is within your reach. There are free tools (some developed by the NSA ironically) that can empower you to search the Internet freely, send email that cannot be read by someone other than the intended recipient and communicate your thoughts and ideas without fear of recourse from the government and its ever-growing militarized police force. The beauty of all of this is that it's very much a David & Goliath story, where we win against the massive forces of government surveillance and we effectively render their giant surveillance machine powerless with a few simple steps.

Granted, these tools can protect the average Internet user, and the degree to which you chose to protect your ideas and freedom ultimately will be up to you. For those requiring much more security (investigative journalists, whistleblowers or activists) there are much more technical and effective ways to protect yourself, and for those of you that fall under one of those categories, I urge you to seek out the HiddenWiki and educate yourselves (and you should expect a steep learning curve). But for the rest of us, I'd like to outline some fairly easy steps you can take today to exercise your right to communicate freely and without fear of consequence. In fact, I'd like to go so far as to say that it is in fact our duty to employ these basic techniques, for if we all did so, we would send an incredibly powerful message, the message that we refuse to be spied on and that we value our freedom at any cost. The fact that you are six times more likely to be killed by the police in the US than a terrorist is reason enough for me to want to remain free to express myself and act in accordance with my ethics and morals. But there are literally billions of reasons, as many reasons are there are human beings on this Earth we share. Consider, what are yours?

This is not intended to be a definitive technical guide, but more of an introduction to personal Internet security and encryption. I'll provide all the links to the tools and information, however, for you to implement this for yourself. To get started, most people are aware of the importance of anti-virus software, having a firewall in place and having a password-protected WiFi setup, but in case you don't, make sure you read those articles and set that up at home. With that understood, here are the basics:

1. Passwords:

Understand that the only people attempting to hack your computer are not just hackers in Eastern Europe trying to turn your machine into a zombie to send spam emails around the world. The government itself is trying to hack your machine, copy your contacts, files and photos. The single-most effective thing you can do to defend against this is by the judicious use of passwords. The vast majority of people use the same password on multiple accounts and for their computer itself. Not only is this lazy, it's dangerous. In our world of ever-connected accounts, if a hacker steals one password, they have access to all of your accounts across the Internet. Start by changing your computer's password, and make it strong.  Include numbers and symbols and change it frequently, once a month or so. I write all my current passwords on a piece of paper and keep it safely hidden away so when I forget, it's easy to retrieve. Then go through all of your accounts, email, Facebook, your Google account, etc., and change them all to something different. I cannot over-emphasize the importance of doing this and changing them up on a regular basis. Here's a call to any programmer who can write open-source software to automate this process for us one day. 

2. Safe internet searches and browsing activity:

There are various ways to browse the Internet anonymously, but by far the best and most effective is the TOR browser (TOR stands for The Onion Router, named for the way that it passes information around the network to keep it anonymous, and was initially developed by the NSA for them to browse the Internet undetected). The TOR browser connects to the TOR network, which is a network of independently hosted servers, called TOR relays (in fact, you can help make the TOR network faster by setting up your machine as a relay too). TOR also gives you access to hidden parts of the Internet, like the HiddenWiki and there are also apps for Android and iPhone that allow you to utilize the TOR network. Internet searches performed through TOR's default search engine StartPage allow you to search Google without your IP address being transmitted, thus keeping your searches anonymous and returning you true searches, not tailored ones resulting in a filter bubble. And StartPage can be used on any computer. There is a bit of an adjustment to using the web this way, but it is worth it for the security factor. Disconnect offers browser plug-ins and solutions for Internet security as well. Their Chrome extension, for example, allows you to see what sites any given site connects to, and blocks ones you don't want. It's enlightening to see it in action, albeit a bit scary.

3. Encrypted Email:

One of the biggest threats to your freedom is the surveillance of your email. Gmail and the like are no longer safe (at least on their own) if you want to communicate without being intercepted. There are several options for encrypted email, and you can learn all about the basics of encrypted mail here. Although a little technical, it's important to have a general understanding of how it all works. If we're all more educated about the technologies behind Internet security, we will already have a huge advantage over those wanting to pry into our private lives. There are also a few web-based solutions, like MailPile, which is great and easy to use and works with Gmail. As well, do yourself a favour and request an invite from ProtonMail, which is currently trying to add more servers due to the demand (or donate to their cause if you have the means). Essentially, you want an email provider based in Switzerland (as the aforementioned are), which does not participate in the violations of privacy that other countries do.

4. Keep your phone secure:

Phones of various platforms can also be kept secure, although with the new information regarding the theft of SIM card encryption keys, SMS messages and phone calls can't really be deemed to be secure. There are a growing number of alternatives to these methods of communication, however. Literally during the writing of this article, Wired released this. Technology is quickly advancing in this area due to consumer demand, which is good news, so it's a good idea to stay abreast of changes. There is also some excellent information on encrypting your phone here and here. Keep your information private! Disconnect is also available for iPhone and Android.

5. Use secure and encrypted cloud storage:

Many argue that cloud storage is a tool that allows them to make our documents visible more easily and should thus be avoided, but there is an alternative. Mr. Snowden himself recommends SpiderOak, what they call a zero-knowledge solution to encrypted cloud storage. Migrate your files to it once you've set it up, then delete your Google Drive, DropBox or any other cloud storage account you may have. Don't forget to delete the apps for these in your phone so that they no longer attempt to upload photos and documents. You'll be sleeping better already.

6. Understand what's private and what's not:

Realize that Facebook, your Google account, Skype, Yahoo, Apple accounts and a slew of others are all networks that have been compromised. Not to say that one can't use any of these services, but know the risks and understand the inherent dangers. I think we're all in the know that Facebook is in the business of selling your personal information anyway.

7. Keep calm and carry on:

Most importantly, educate yourself about the technology of encryption and learn to use it to your advantage, but don't allow yourself to become paranoid. Then they win and you live out your days in fear. Use these tools and this knowledge to empower yourself and have pride in the fact that you are in control of your information. The onus is on us to take action, but we all need to help one another with it. If any of the technical elements discussed here are daunting for anyone, you can post in the comments and either myself or our gentle readers will do what we can to help you get set up. Virtually all of the tools I've mentioned here are free services and as a result, you can fight the power for not one cent, which is almost poetic in its beauty. This is what Gandhi would have wanted us to do; fight with passive resistance. A choice, right now, between love and fear. If you take the time to implement these precautions and understand the technology even a little, you will look at the Internet and your place in it in a whole new way and wonder what you were thinking before. Freedom of expression, like anything of value in life, is sweetest when you fight for it.

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