Preserving Privacy in a Watched World

In the wake of ongoing revelations of online government surveillance, what many observers have suspected is now shown to be true. As Google CEO Eric Schmidt once famously said: there is no anonymity in the future of the Web. As the head of one of the companies chiefly responsible for this, he should know.

It’s not just the government spying on you online, either, through Internet giants Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Skype, among others. Millions of phone calls, all postal mail, even your physical location in traffic (note: pdf format) is all being recorded and stored. Not only do you have little or no control over this massive ongoing collection, you can’t find out anything about it: it’s all classified. Even if you haven’t done anything suspicious, you can’t get any of that information via the Freedom of Information Act. However, the hypocrisy of the big corporations in strenuously denying any knowledge of such practices is probably legal necessary. The laws that permit Internet spying by service providers also forbid under pain of criminal penalties any acknowledgement of such surveillance.

However, some corporations have gone to great lengths to accommodate the feds. Microsoft, for example, helped them evade their own encryption in their email program. In fact, Microsoft has installed backdoors in its software to permit secret NSA access at least since 1999. They are likely certainly not alone.

Now that the door’s been cracked open, more and more information is coming out. The US government, in close cooperation with the British and others, it turns out, is spying on everybody, everywhere, all the time, allies or adversaries. Many other great powers are in on the game, too. Even the French have been caught spying, too. Meanwhile, the Germans have been doing so too, though their experience under a Communist police state makes them nervous.

As extensive as the secret surveillance of the Internet by the NSA is, so far it seems they’re really doing little more than what those corporate partners have been up to all along: sucking up as much data about users as they can.

But the NSA’s corporate partners are not giving up all the data the government wants for nothing. Just as the license plate readers often resell their data, so too do the phone companies and service providers. Civil rights watchdogs argue that thought they don’t want surveillance to be profitable, even a token fee is better than nothing at all because it requires some kind of accountability. But many of these fees – which are generally kept hidden – are rather steep.

Phone companies and service providers make a profit off of spying. ATT&T, for instance, charges $325 to activate a wiretap and $10/day to run it, while Verizon gets $775 to start and $500/month. Email is much cheaper. Facebook gives it free to law enforcement, and others for as little as $25.

But the bottom line is this: your phone company gets paid with your tax dollars to spy on you. Isn’t capitalism grand?

What can be done

Many people have suddenly become concerned. Search engine DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t track visitors, has reported a huge increase in the recent numbers of users, for example.

But trying too hard to limit exposure could backfire. While email encryption is said to be the only way to keep it secure, with their new data center, the NSA likely automatically retains all encrypted information indefinitely “just in case.” They’ve just opened a huge new data center to handle and store it all.

But don’t think you may be safe just because you don’t chat with terrorists. The NSA admits that it searches “three hops” away from suspects. So if you know somebody who knows somebody who knows a suspect, you’re automatically a suspect, too. In other words, almost everybody online could be a target of surveillance already.

Exposure is made much worse because users are inconsis­tent, leaving different bits of data with different services. For instance, you might use your mother’s maiden name to validate your banking, your age to join an Internet forum, and so forth. These tiny scraps of data scattered about are harmless in themselves. But if gathered up, they can form a mosaic picture of you that may, or may not be accurate. This on reason why collecting communications metadata can be danger­ous: how will these myriad individual pieces be inter­preted, and by whom? Connecting the very same dots could indicate a potential terrorist planning an attack – or maybe just a gamer doing research for his hobby.

There are so many cookies, widgets and other hidden trackers online that many popular webpages load slowly, or never finish. You can see just how mind-bogglingly much is being collected by all kinds of parties with a share­ware application created by a former Google engineer. Disconnect.me works for Chrome or Firefox to track, analyze, and block them.

A whole list of Internet software to keep your data private can be found at Prism Break. Not all of these are appropriate for everyone; some require a good bit of technical knowledge to set up. There will probably be a lot more software like that to come. We’ll keep you posted of developments as they occur.

This entry was posted in How the Net Works, Interesting Items, News, Security and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.