Civil Liberties

One in Three Americans Hide Data From Government (and You Should Too)

Crack the code on my selfies, you jerks


My cell phone is encrypted. It also contains two apps—TextSecure and RedPhone—for conducting secure communications. All I really need in addition is something worth keeping secret, unless a few notes for articles and photographs of my kid and my dogs make the cut. Still, it gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling to imagine government snoops someday devoting time and resources to find out that there's really nothing worth finding out—it's my little "fuck you" to them.

In these post-Snowden days, when the FBI just acquired wider authority to hack people's computers, plenty of other people seem to share my attitude, or maybe their lives are more interesting than my own, or both. About one out of three Americans make efforts large and small to conceal their activities and information from the government.

That bit of unencrypted data comes courtesy of the Pew Research Center. Pew found that nearly nine of ten Americans are aware of Edward Snowden's revelations about government surveillance of phones and the Internet. For a good chunk of people, Snowden's warnings provided incentive to change their ways. Write Pew's Lee Rainie and Mary Madden:

34% of those who are aware of the surveillance programs (30% of all adults) have taken at least one step to hide or shield their information from the government. For instance, 17% changed their privacy settings on social media; 15% use social media less often; 15% have avoided certain apps and 13% have uninstalled apps; 14% say they speak more in person instead of communicating online or on the phone; and 13% have avoided using certain terms in online communications.

Few of these changes are life-altering, but they do represent widespread discomfort with the government's snoopy ways. Think about the people who avoid "using certain terms in online communications." That means they're avoiding words like "explosive" in their Internet searches and emails in order to reduce the likelihood of official scrutiny. Do you think any of those people are happy about feeling obliged to modify their use of language out of fear that they'll incur the wrath of our acronym-laden guardians?

In fact, Pew found that 57 percent of people say its unacceptable for the government to monitor U.S. citizens.

In expressing their displeasure, that privacy-minded third helps others do the same even as they make the snoops' jobs a little harder. Acting to protect your data doesn't just protect your own information; it also help to normalize such efforts for others. One guy in a crowd wearing a Guy Fawkes mask is suspicious, but if a third of them are wearing masks it becomes just another characteritic and no one of the anonymous people stands out.

That's partially why FBI Director James Comey is so upset about the encryption software that's increasingly standard on cellphones, and about similar technology elsewhere.

"What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to hold themselves beyond the law," he whined to reporters when Google and Apple announced that encryption would soon be a default setting. That's because, up until now, encryption has required some effort and the people who bothered to do it were those who cared about their privacy and may well have information they'd like to keep private. Getting access to that information might or might not be doable for the NSA and the Comeys of the world, but those who protected their info it stood out.

But if lots of people use encryption…

And if lots of people act in myriad ways to protect their privacy, it's much harder not just to randomly hoover information, but to target people because they "suspiciously" seek to avoid said hoovering.

So encrypt your phones and computers, tweak your privacy settings, and guard your conversations. Make the snoops work for the data they want to extract.

And if the feds ultimately decide to devote time and effort to hack our information, whether or not we have deep dark secrets to hide? Well, my kids and my dog are pretty damned photogenic. A peek at the photos is its own reward.

And so is contributing to a culture that normalizes privacy and makes it harder for government snoops to suck up our data.