Can You Truly Hide from Online Monitoring?

When journalist Glenn Greenwald first met National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel in 2013, the first thing Snowden did was grab each person’s cell phone and put it in the freezer. Paranoia? Absolutely. But it also served a real-life purpose: ice and a freezer limits the ability of third-parties from accessing the devices to listen in on the conversations that are occurring. This is the world we live in today, where governments, companies, and hackers are able to take control of our mobile devices for their own purposes. This means that our devices – from our cell phone to our tablets to our computers – can become monitoring tools for spy agencies as well as the police and companies who wish to learn more about us and follow our daily movements.

Over the past year and a half since Snowden and a group of journalists revealed arguably the most abhorrent spying on regular citizens project – PRISM – that the world has ever seen, more and more people are becoming aware of the fact that their electronic devices are simultaneously their own as well as governments’ and other companies’.

What to Fear?

Let us briefly look at the methods the NSA takes in tracking our movements. They have pushed telecommunications companies to give the government access to individual’s devices, track their online movements, record whom they talk with, and copy personal information that users may have on their emails, computer hard drives, and cloud accounts. The government also receives, to this day, a detailed listing of call records and Internet searches of the individuals they are following.

This created a new society where individuals actively seek to avoid government oversight of their day-to-day activities. Think about this: Words like pork, metro, and even Mexico are among the keywords established by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that “warrant” tracking by the government. The list includes Al-Qaeda, Jihad, and bomb as part of the list that triggers red flags and causes officials to follow people writing those words online, in forums, on social media sites, and in emails. Context is irrelevant to “warrant” tracking. And I use “warrant” in quotations here because the arguable value of these words is arbitrarily decided by the government and its agencies.

It may be part fear that has driven the upsurge in encrypted email services or attempts from people to go “off the grid” entirely in an effort not to be tracked. The question is how reliable are the options currently available to ordinary citizens like you and me to stop government and third-party intrusion into our personal affairs.

How to Protect Yourself

As we find ourselves in a post-NSA whistleblower world where we now know the larger extent that the NSA, DHS, and other agencies have been tracking us, it is time to look at the means in which we can protect ourselves. These might not be foolproof, as the arms of those who want to follow us are long and curvy, but it is a start.

First, encryption is paramount. Greenwald, who first wrote about surveillance in 2005, admits in his latest book, “No Place to Hide,” that he almost lost Snowden as a source because he failed to encrypt his emails. For months, Snowden – then an unknown and not yet trustworthy source – pressured Greenwald to encrypt his email and chat service in order to continue the interviews. Finally, Greenwald did so, and the stories that came from the meetings in Hong Kong have put online surveillance and digital spying onto the front pages of media outlets across the planet.

By encrypting our means of using the Internet, voice calls, and other digital communications platforms, we give ourselves a level of privacy that the government has thus far been unable to tap into. Many people initially view encryption as some high-end technology that only a select few can employ. Instead, encryption – the most popular being PGP encryption – is easy to use, and it works.

According to Rory Peck Trust, PGP encryption “incorporates a public key, private key and password to make sure that only the intended recipient can read your email. It’s not too complicated to set up, and a number programmes and services make encryption easier to manage, or automatic.”

That means that by simply encrypting our communications the prying eyes of the government and other third-party hackers are left in the dark.

While we currently live in a society where security has trumped individuals’ rights to privacy, as the war path against this new threat or that old threat continues to seep into the psyche of the average citizen, the right to individual privacy remains a top priority for most Americans and other global citizens. Maybe we cannot avoid government surveillance altogether, but there are ways to protect ourselves from the watchful gazes of the “surveillers” who have no legal right to track our movements.

Just as a police officer has no authority to ask for identification unless he or she is going to arrest you, we should be cognizant that our personal emails, Internet searches, and personal conversations should not be the knowledge of the government. And the battle for our privacy is picking up steam. Encrypt, encrypt, encrypt.

Photo: Flickr/capsicina

Author -

Joseph Mayton is a long-time journalist, having covered Middle East conflicts for a decade. He now lives in San Francisco and focuses on the intersection of technology and society.

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