For most everyone in the US, the NSA does not capture the content of your emails, record your phone calls or put malware on your computer. That is a risk because they can if they want to, but it’s not happening on a grand scale … not right now.
What they are collecting, however, is the metadata associated with everything you do on the internet and through your ISP and mobile carrier. This is an excessive amount of information that can be used to determine one’s behavior, patterns, friends, acquaintances and preferences. Put in the wrong hands this data can be used for nefarious ends.
What metadata is captured?
- the location a tranmission originated from, e.g. address of the phone, subscription information and nearest cell tower
- the device that sent or made the communication, e.g. telephone identifier, IMEI of the mobile phone, unique data from the computer that sent a message
- the times at which the message was made and sent
- the recipient of the communication and their location, device, and time received
- information related to the sender and recipients of a communication, e.g. email address, address book information, email providers, ISPs and IP address
- the length of a continuous interaction or the size of a message, e.g. how long was a phone call? how many bits in a message?
So, what can we do to mitigate the collection of this meta data by the NSA? How can we ensure our private actions remain private? For this article, we will focus on web browsing. Not all of these tools are available for mobile devices.
Do not use http, use https
The basic idea is that you encrypt traffic between your computer and the web server so eavesdroppers cannot see any of that information. https will only encrypt traffic between your browser and a particular website …
By using https, the data from your browser transmission will be encrypted, end to end, to the website you are connecting to. This information cannot be intercepted and read. However, the orginating and final IP addresses are still broadcast.
For even more security you can use a VPN (Virtual Private Network).
A virtual private network or VPN for short, is a way of connecting a computer to a remote network. Most people using computers connect to the internet using a normal network – they use dial-up or broadband. A VPN is a little bit different. It’s used by some workers to connect using a laptop to do work – they can check their work email and see work websites which can not be seen on the normal internet.
VPN often offers anonymity by hiding the user and making it very hard for anyone to track them.
Recently VPN is often used to access to the websites blocked in some countries, like China.
https will only encrypt traffic between your browser and a particular website. VPN will encrypt all traffic between your computer and the Internet. One of the big reasons many people use a VPN is to mask or change their IP address. This can allow a user to bypass access restrictions in some countries, but the IP address a snooper would see, is not where you are.
Additionally, you can browse anonymously using a TOR (The Onion Router) browser.
The Tor network runs through the computer servers of thousands of volunteers (over 4,500 at time of publishing) spread throughout the world. Your data is bundled into an encrypted packet when it enters the Tor network. Then, unlike the case with normal Internet connections, Tor strips away part of the packet’s header, which is a part of the addressing information that could be used to learn things about the sender such as the operating system from which the message was sent.
Finally, Tor encrypts the rest of the addressing information, called the packet wrapper. Regular Internet connections don’t do this.
The modified and encrypted data packet is then routed through many of these servers, called relays, on the way to its final destination.The roundabout way packets travel through the Tor network is akin to a person taking a roundabout path through a city to shake a pursuer.
Below, I list a number of excellent privacy tools for the intenet. They can also be found on the sidebar, to the right.
Disconnect: Browser Protection
LastPass: Password Manager
PGP encryption: GPG Tools
Mailvelope: PGP for Webmail
Signal: Encryped Mobile Calling
Tunnel Bear: Secure VPN
TOR: Anonymous Browsing
Tails: Secure OS