Do you sometimes get the feeling that you’re being watched? You’re not paranoid. You might just be. The recent revelation of the NSA’s intelligence data mining program, PRISM, confirmed what many have suspected for a long time. In addition to its surveillance of foreign data traffic, the NSA also monitors domestic traffic by issuing subpoenas to companies like Microsoft, Yahoo!, Facebook, Google, Apple, and DropBox.
The Agency’s activities include the requisitioning of caller records from phone companies such as Verizon and user information from tech giants like Yahoo! and Google. But you have options. If you’re concerned about protecting your online privacy or you wish to safeguard sensitive information, the following are a few effective apps and tactics that can help you achieve this.
TextSecure is a mobile app available on Android. It protects your private text messages by encrypting all the messages in your inbox, as well as those sent over the air. In other words, if someone steals your phone, you will not need to worry about your messages being read. The application functions with open source cryptographic protocols to guarantee that your messages remain safe. TextSecure doesn’t just offer you a great way of protecting your communications; it is also an easy tool to use.
Orbot is an app that offers features similar to a proxy server. It allows you to access the web while hiding your IP address. It achieves this by rerouting your messages through dozens of servers across the world. Except, unlike proxy browsers, Orbot is a proxy app designed for “other apps.” If you want to use your Facebook app but don’t want to reveal your IP location, the Orbot app would be a good choice.
You could also stream all of your outbound web traffic through Orbot, ensuring that your location and usage can’t be monitored. The downside to using Orbot is that your data transmissions may become a little slower, but they’ll be a lot safer.
The Onion Router (Tor)
Available in every country except Iran and China, the Onion Router is a free, open source application that can be used to block your IP address. Using Tor allows you to hide your location and web habits. You can prevent unwanted eavesdropping (hello, NSA) and stop private antagonists who are trying to spy on your activities.
With the Onion Router, websites do not actually see your IP address, which makes it an easier option for bypassing firewalls or censorship protocols.
MEGA and DigitalQuick
Under U.S. laws, companies are duty bound to hand over information subpoenaed by the government. That means Google can hand over the sensitive plans you have on your Google Drive if the government decides they want to take a peek. There are two ways of avoiding this. The first is not to store your files on clouds powered by U.S. companies. Instead, store your data in countries that offer stronger privacy protection laws.
That’s where MEGA comes in. MEGA is a secure cloud storage service hosted by a non-U.S. company. The cloud carries the added advantage that your files are encrypted before they are uploaded and therefore cannot be viewed by anyone else, including the owners of the service.
The second approach is to consider encrypting your data before storing it on local file hosting services. That way, if someone were to break into your account, they still would not be able to access your data.
Similarly, DigitalQuick is an effective app that you can use to encrypt your Dropbox files. It would be best if you hosted files on a safer hosting service. However, if you are going to use Google Drive or Dropbox, this app will help make your files less accessible.
If you’re worried about people listening in on your conversations, try the RedPhone app. Currently only available on Android, the app offers security by encrypting your calls. Using RedPhone is not difficult; the app uses your normal phone number, contact directory, and system dialer. But anytime you make or receive a call, you get the option of encrypting your conversation—as long as the other party also has RedPhone installed. And since the conversation is conducted over a data stream, à la Skype, you don’t have to worry about caller minutes.
Hushmail is a web-based email service that offers enhanced security features. Using regular mail is like sending the NSA a postcard. The Agency can easily access it and read it at any time. But Hushmail offers advanced privacy, guaranteed by PGP protection. Released in 1991, PGP encryption was so advanced that the U.S. government considered it a weapon until a judge ruled otherwise.
Virtual Private Network
Most people are familiar with virtual private networks (VPN). A VPN client allows you to screen out unwanted online activity. But it also offers similar protective features when you surf the web. For instance, with a VPN service, you can assign a German IP address to your U.S. browser and use this to access restricted sites and servers.
When sites like The Pirate Bay and KickassTorrents were banned from U.K. servers, thousands of users got around this by using VPNs. A quick search online will reveal over a dozen different VPN clients that you can use freely or for next to nothing. Popular choices include Hide My Ass, Hotspot Shield, and Golden Frog VyprVPN.
The Final Wrap
One final point: using the systems and apps above can help you hide your activity from the snooping eyes of the government. But it is worth noting that the government is likely to focus more on people who appear to have something to hide. If the NSA detects that you are constantly sending encrypted emails, you may suddenly become a target, even if the emails really contain nothing more than your family’s secret apple pie recipe.
Bottom line: save your use of these security tactics for the moments when you really need to. If you appear normal, you will keep the government guessing.