Four Ways to Escape the NSA Dragnet
By Nick Pearson / yesmagazine.org
Aug 8, 2013

Start by switching to an alternative search engine, using an alias on Facebook, and supporting allied nonprofits.

The PRISM scandal confirmed our worst fears when it comes to state-level surveillance of the Internet, with the revelation that the NSA has created "backdoors" into major online services such as Google, Facebook, and Yahoo. These backdoors allegedly give intelligence agencies around the world access to user emails, Facebook posts, search queries, web history, and more, with little or no judicial oversight. For many, PRISM represents a violation of the 4th Amendment and is a sign that the government is heading down an increasingly totalitarian route when it comes to Internet surveillance.

Using a false Facebook name is common in parts of Europe.

But while the debate over PRISM continues to rage, the question remains: What can you do to take better control of your personal information and reclaim your online privacy? Staying completely anonymous online is incredibly difficult, but there are numerous tools and best practices you can use to gain a large degree of control over who has access to your personal data.

Remember, a lot of this stuff will mean sacrificing convenience for privacy, so some of these suggestions may take a bit of time and effort. In the end, you have to find the balance that works best for you.

1. Use a search engine that respects your privacy

With the two biggest search engines—Google and Bing—caught up in the PRISM scandal, how can you avoid search queries ending up on the NSA's servers? There are two main ways. First, you can still use Google and Bing without logging into your account, which means your searches won't be linked to your account. However, your queries will still be tracked via cookies, which are small files that get stored on your browser when you access a website. Cookies are typically used by Google to track your search habits and deliver personalized search results and advertisements.

The second option is to forget Google and use a privacy-orientated search engine. DuckDuckGo is probably the most popular. It doesn't store search information, doesn't use cookies, and doesn't personalize search results. Another alternative is the privacy-focused StartPage search engine, which uses Google search results but strips all identifying information from your query and submits it anonymously.

Of course, if these alternatives become very popular, then it's reasonable to assume the NSA will be interested in monitoring them also.

2. Set boundaries for Facebook

Facebook has become an important part of our social lives and has become the de facto platform to upload pictures, join online groups, and share personal information. But Facebook retains records of user activity for commercial use, and also provides data to the NSA, according to documents leaked by former security contractor Edward Snowden.

If you're worried about the security of your information stored with Facebook, the easiest solution is to deactivate your account. But if this is too extreme, then focus on limiting the amount of personal information made available to potential snoopers. In short, don't submit any information you're not comfortable sharing with the world.

Due to the supposed existence of "Dark Profiles" (which allegedly track and store data on Internet users who aren't even on Facebook), some believe the best way to minimize the impact of Facebook on your privacy is to supply the platform with false information, rather than deactivating your profile. At a basic level, this can mean simply changing your name (using a false Facebook name is common in parts of Europe), and can extend to supplying false information about your location and the things you "Like."

Facebook also uses cookies and other tracking tools to monitor what websites you visit in order to serve you relevant ads and shares data with a number of applications and websites via the Facebook Platform. To avoid this, you can use a browser extension such as Facebook Disconnect, which blocks the flow of information from third-party sites to Facebook's servers, along with a cookie blocker for your browser such as Ghostery, which tells you exactly which advertising companies are tracking your activity.

3. Pick a privacy-conscious email provider

Finding web-based alternatives to Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and Hotmail is thankfully easier than finding alternatives to social networks. Some of the more notable privacy-orientated email platforms include RiseUp, GuerillaMail, Rediff and HushMail (although HushMail has faced some controversy in the past). Just remember that if you email someone with a Gmail, Hotmail, or Yahoo address, then that email will end up on those companies' servers and will be subject to privacy risks there.

The other option is to encrypt your emails using a tool such as Pretty Good Privacy or GNU Privacy Guard. Encryption is an effective way to secure the contents of your emails. But it can be slightly complicated to set up and whoever receives your encrypted emails will need to use software to decrypt the contents. For more about email encryption, take a look at this guide by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

3. Protect your IP address

An Internet Protocol address, or IP address, is an identifier assigned to a device such as a laptop or smartphone that's connected to a network of devices that uses the Internet Protocol for communication (i.e., "the Internet"). Any website or service you connect to will usually be able to see your IP address. This will tell them roughly where in the world you are located.

Some people who are serious about online privacy will combine a VPN with TOR, creating multiple layers of protection.

Your Internet Service Provider, or ISP, also tracks your IP address, which is linked to your account and therefore your home address. By tracking the IP address, your provider will typically know what websites you've connected to and when you connected to them. It will also know when you've sent emails and who received them. This information is what we usually call "metadata." In Europe it is currently mandatory for all ISPs to store this information on their customers. In the United States, things are more complicated. There are no mandatory data retention laws for ISPs. But—as this document revealed a couple of years ago—most ISPs in the U.S. voluntarily retain customer metadata anyway, in order to help law enforcement. But there are a few services you can use to enhance the security of this information.

One of the most popular ways to protect your IP address is The Onion Router, or TOR, a free-to-use anonymization tool. TOR works by rerouting your Internet traffic via different "nodes" set up all over the world. This masks your IP address and makes it appear as if you're accessing the Internet from a different location. TOR is generally considered very secure. However, it does have some vulnerabilities, as traffic can be monitored at exit nodes, which anyone (including the NSA) can do. Also, your Internet speed will take a hit.

After TOR, a commercial Virtual Private Network, or VPN, is probably the most popular way to shield your IP address (full disclosure: I work for the VPN company IVPN). A commercial VPN company sets up its own servers in different locations across the world and lets customers reroute their traffic via these servers, so it appears that their traffic is coming from a different location.

There are lots of VPN companies out there and many of them—especially the bigger ones—do not offer a genuine privacy service, because they log metadata in the same way an ISP does. But there are also plenty of VPNs that take privacy seriously. The main benefit of a commercial VPN over TOR is that you can expect much faster connections. The main drawback is that you have to trust that the VPN company is actually protecting your privacy. Some people who are serious about online privacy will combine a VPN with TOR, creating multiple layers of protection.

 

4. Support online activism

If you care about protecting online freedoms and privacy, you may find organizations that work on these issues worth supporting. As shown by the successful protests against SOPA, ACTA, and CISPA—acts that would have limited Internet freedoms—online activism can sway the opinion of legislators who often have little understanding of how the Internet works.

For more information on online privacy check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Open Rights Group, EPIC and the ACLU.

 


 

Nick Pearson is the founder and CEO of IVPN. He has 15 years experience in information security with experience across telecommunications and government sectors.

3.5 ·
1
Trending Today
Why It's Crucial for Women to Heal the Mother Wound
Bethany Webster · 18,533 views today · The issue at the core of women’s empowerment is the mother wound
Before He Was Assassinated, MLK Jr. Was Advocating For An End To Income Inequality
10 min · 13,979 views today · We can honor MLK Jr. by pursuing the causes he was advocating for before he was killed.  ​​ Part 2: The Basic Income, A New Human Right (3 minutes) MLK's idea of a basic...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 6,519 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Watch How Europeans Carved Up African Land They Never Owned
56 min · 4,478 views today · Watch how Europeans gave away African land they never owned, then expressed anger when Africans resisted. The film is called Africa: A Voyage of Discovery, Episode 6: The...
One "Piece of the Oppressor" That I Have Discovered Within Myself
Tim Hjersted · 3,894 views today · One "piece of the oppressor" that I have found in myself during my inner activist journeys is my use of shame as a method of engaging with the world's problems. Having learned...
#ReclaimMLK Seeks to Combat the Sanitizing of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Legacy
Danielle C. Belton · 2,598 views today · Martin Luther King Jr. had more than “a dream,” but you might not notice that on Monday during observances for his birthday. Somewhere between his assassination and today...
What Martin Luther King Jr. Can Teach Us about Nonviolence
John Dear · 2,477 views today · I've been reflecting on the principles of nonviolence that Martin Luther King Jr. learned during the historic yearlong bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala. After Rosa Parks refused...
The Corporation (2003)
145 min · 2,027 views today · The Corporation is today's dominant institution, creating great wealth but also great harm. This 26 award-winning documentary examines the nature, evolution, impacts and future...
Coping With Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the White House
N Ziehl · 1,255 views today · I want to talk a little about narcissistic personality disorder. I’ve unfortunately had a great deal of experience with it, and I’m feeling badly for those of you who are...
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 1,067 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,018 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Positive Thinking in a Dark Age: A Guide to Gracefully Losing Faith in a Collapsing Dominant Culture
Jim Tull · 370 views today · I recall a Buddhist parable involving a stick that appears from a distance to be a snake, causing fear to rise in the perceiver. As the perception shifts upon closer...
The Invention of Capitalism: How a Self-Sufficient Peasantry was Whipped Into Industrial Wage Slaves
Yasha Levine · 365 views today · “…everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious.” —Arthur Young; 1771 Our popular economic wisdom says that...
The Comprehensive Activist Guide to Dismantling Neoliberalism
Drew Serres · 360 views today · “The creation of today’s market society was not the result of a sequence of spontaneous events but rather of state interference and violence.” – Naomi Klein in The Shock...
22 Documentaries That Tell the Truth About How Government Really Works
Tim Hjersted · 345 views today · And 6 that show how people are responding.
This Woman Gets No Applause...Why? They Are Too Creeped Out...
7 min · 336 views today · Think you aren't being fooled by advertising tricks? Take a look at this so-called expert revealing food marketing's secret weapon. No amount of marketing makes factory farming...
90 Inspiring and Visionary Films That Will Change How You See the World in Profound Ways
Tim Hjersted · 335 views today · The world today is in crisis. Everybody knows that. But what is driving this crisis? It's a story, a story that is destroying the world. It's a story about our relationship to...
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 316 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
Stunning Photos By Alexander Semenov Showcase The Alien Beauty Of Jellyfish
Earth Porm · 296 views today · Jellyfish appear like beautiful aliens in Alexander Semenov’s photography, calling a new attraction to a magical species of marine life. Alexander Semenov is a marine...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 261 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
Four Ways to Escape the NSA Dragnet