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Four Steps to Keep the Government From Spying on You—or at Least Make It More Difficult
“Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in March. Clapper replied, “No sir…not wittingly.”
We now know this was a bald-faced lie. Or as Clapper parsed it later, it was the “least untruthful” answer he could give. The NSA has been collecting information about the telephone calls and online activity of millions of Americans for years.
Clapper says it’s not as bad as it sounds because the government does not actually look at the data unless it has reason to believe a particular person is up to no good. To Christopher Soghoian, a policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, that’s like putting a camera in your bedroom while assuring you that no one will look at the resulting footage unless something bad happens.
The NSA was able to obtain all that personal information about American citizens because the dominant Internet business model is to exchange free services for personal information that facilitates targeted advertising. Soghoian suggests the free market has delivered us into a world that is insecure by default. But when I point out that Verizon and the other telephone companies are highly regulated semi-monopolies, Soghoian agrees, noting that phone companies are subject to more regulation than Internet companies such as Google or Facebook. This gives the government more opportunities to punish them should they be shy about meeting demands for information.
If you can’t expect the companies entrusted with your information to keep it confidential, what can you do to ward off government snoops? “I have bad news for the average citizen,” says Mark Wuergler, a senior researcher at the cybersecurity firm Immunity Inc. To avoid monitoring by the government, he says, you need to use encryption and control your own hardware, networks, and servers. Wuergler is pretty sure that current methods for protecting data are so clunky and complicated that most Americans will not bother with them. “It boils down to less convenient, more secure; more convenient, less secure,” he says. “You just need to assume that your data is being watched.”
Still, there are some steps you can take to protect your privacy:
1. Consider not putting so much stuff out there in the first place.
Wuergler has devised a program called Stalker that can siphon off nearly all your digital information and use it to assemble an amazingly complete portrait of your life, pretty much pinpointing where you are at all times. So use Facebook if you must, but realize that you’re making it easy for the government to track you.
2. Use a secure search engine, such as DuckDuckGo.
DuckDuckGo and its discreet search-engine rivals do not collect the sort of information that can leave a digital trail of your Internet searches. When the government bangs on its door to find out what you’ve been looking at, DuckDuckGo has nothing to hand over. I have decided to make DuckDuckGo my default for general browsing and searching, turning to Google only for items such as breaking news and scholarly articles. (The NSA presumably would be able to tap into my DuckDuckGo searches in real time.)
3. Use TOR to conceal your whereabouts.
TOR offers free software and a network of relays that can shield your location from prying eyes. TOR operates by bouncing your email messages and files around the Internet through encrypted relays. Anyone intercepting your message once it exits a TOR relay cannot trace it back to your computer or your physical location. The software is used by dissidents and journalists around the world. On the downside, in my experience TOR slows down your browsing and searching.
4. Use encryption.