In light of the recent news reports about the government’s massive surveillance dragnet and penchant for mining data from private companies to spy on American citizens, you may wonder if there is any way to avoid unwittingly losing any semblance of 4th Amendment protections.
The short answer in terms of convenience and practicality is probably not. But if you want to work to minimize the amount of data the government stores on you without your permission, there are a few steps you can take to thwart snoops.
A key factor of how the government collects so much of the data it does is tied directly to the relationship customers have with service providers and, furthermore, the relationship those service providers have with the Federal government. Consider that just about any service you sign up for — including social networks, email accounts, public Wi-Fi, bank accounts, credit cards and more — involves a customer/provider relationship wherein you borrow a service for a small fee or for free. In the latter case, free is usually not really free, as you agree — in fine print — to relinquish data about your spending, travel, Internet surfing or social circles for the benefit of the service.
A combination of legal requirements and economic incentives drives companies offering the aforementioned services to collect massive amounts of data on you and all of their other users. You ought to go ahead and assume that the Federal government, through coercion or the threat of reprisal, can get companies to hand over that information any time it wishes.
The only real way to avoid prying eyes 100 percent of the time is to give up a hefty amount of the convenience that technology affords. That means axing your social networks and email accounts and taking on a cash-only policy in your financial dealings.
The latest explosive revelations about the government’s phone records spying leave the impression that Federal agents have access to a treasure trove of communication data for American citizens. Tied in with reports of phone data logging and mining are reports of the same processes being used for online activities.
Here is a shortlist of tips to protect yourself if you are concerned about the government sifting through information about you:
- Encrypt Phone calls, or scrap your wireless plan for a prepaid phone. This recent article in PC Magazine provides excellent information about protecting your phone conversations.
- When surfing the Internet, protect yourself by using a pseudonym and proxy or VPN. This walkthrough from Extreme Tech can show you how.
- Electronic Frontier Foundation also offers a simple Internet add-on which allows you to encrypt your communications with many major websites, making your browsing more secure. The HTTPS Everywhere extension, available for Firefox and Chrome users, can be downloaded here.
The government isn’t the only threat to your privacy. In his aptly timed new book, The Ultimate Privacy Guide, Bob Livingston provides a number of warnings about your privacy in the digital age.
First, Facebook knows where you are. Every time you log on, the company knows the location of your computer because of the Internet Protocol (IP) address, which is the numerical code that the Internet uses to route information to the proper place. In most cases, an IP address tells Facebook where you are. It doesn’t give an exact location, but it’s close enough to know what city you’re in and even what part of a city, in many cases.
But it’s not just your posts you need to be concerned about. The company has created scanning software that monitors chats for words or phrases that signal possible wrongdoing including discussions about criminal behavior, exchange of personal information or vulgar language. It then turns these suspect conversations over to law enforcement for evaluation.
He also warns of the permanent nature of everything you do online:
Be careful about what you post about yourself online. If it’s something that could damage you if someone else saw it, don’t post it. Don’t assume you can delete it later and no one will see. In many cases, the things you post are there forever for all the world to see—and you’ll have absolutely no control of those things once someone else has made a copy…
…In some cases, such information might only be held for 90 days or so after you’ve deleted it. In other cases, the information might remain on some backup drive buried in the archives of a company’s data center. The point is that if you don’t have real control over your data after you’ve posted it.
On government monitoring of online speech:
In late 2011, the Department of Homeland Security was forced to admit in court that the agency has contracted with General Dynamics to monitor online speech. The contract requires the company to identify “media reports that reflect adversely on the U.S. government, DHS, or prevent, protect, respond government activities.” The contract also requires General Dynamics to generate reports on what is being said online about “DHS, Component, and other Federal Agencies: positive and negative reports on FEMA, CIA, CBP, ICE, etc. as well as organizations outside the DHS.”
Livingston also offers a number of tips for protecting your anonymity online, detailing for readers more ways to surf the Internet anonymously and to completely secure connections to protect them from hackers and government snoops alike.
Livingston’s privacy book is available for purchase in the Personal Liberty Digest™ online store.
Sources: The Ultimate Privacy Guide, Extreme Tech, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Motherboard