PRISM Raises The Question: Can You Become Invisible To Government Spies?


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.

On Facebook:

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    

Personal Liberty

Sam Rolley

Sam Rolley began a career in journalism working for a small town newspaper while seeking a B.A. in English. After covering community news and politics, Rolley took a position at Personal Liberty Media Group where could better hone his focus on his true passions: national politics and liberty issues. In his daily columns and reports, Rolley works to help readers understand which lies are perpetuated by the mainstream media and to stay on top of issues ignored by more conventional media outlets.

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  • dan

    Can you hide ? Sorry.The best you can hope for is plausible deniability unless they get prints or DNA evidence….
    not that the rules of law matter since the un-Patriot Act and NDAA and now, the NSA.
    They’ve recorded EVERYTHING since 2007…they just haven’t sorted it yet.
    You’re considered ,by big-government,as a human resource and like slaves and animals, you have no dignity,privacy or rights.
    Isn’t it nice to know that we’re all precious in His sight…and that He gave us our right to life ,liberty and the pursuit of happiness…if we defend them.

  • Vigilant

    “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.”

    Substitute “Personal Liberty Digest” for “Facebook” and that paragraph will still be true.

    • Bob Livingston

      Dear Vigilant,

      You write: “Substitute “Personal Liberty Digest” for “Facebook” and that paragraph will still be true.” Yes, but the difference is we don’t share it with the government or anyone else.

      Best wishes,

      • Vigilant

        As far as you know.

        It would be naïve to think that the Feds aren’t monitoring this site.

        • Vigilant

          Incidentally, it would appear that your overt sponsorship of Facebook on this website would seem to dull the edge of the article. How does Facebook feel about the negative advertising?

          Perhaps profit motive occasionally trumps the loftier ideals of personal liberty.

          • Bob Livingston

            Dear Vigilant,

            You write: “As far as you know.” We do not share it.

            You write: “It would be naïve to think that the Feds aren’t monitoring this site.” I’m certain they are and that is beyond our control.

            You write: “How does Facebook feel about the negative advertising?” They have not complained.

            Best wishes,

          • Vigilant

            “You write: “As far as you know.” We do not share it.

            I didn’t claim that you did voluntarily share it. Read the second, qualifying sentence of my posting.

      • 45caliber

        Bob: Actually you do, thanks to Bill Clinton’s Privacy Improvement Act. That required all manufacturers of computers install a chip that allows the government to access your computer system whenever they wish.

      • Dave

        The 1950’s are over. Its a new world today and all of us are trying to keep up and understand the complexities of the world now that the internet, not TV, not print media or radio, is the primary way information is shared. Security, whether is be national or protecting someone’s illegality that is in power is infinitely more difficult today.

        Before the internet, life was a lot simpler. It cracks me up when people who use the internet (a public domain) think they have privacy. Anyone who has the knowhow, either private or public pulls data on you, your associations, you buying habits if nothing else for market research so when you go on PLD or some other similar site, the ads on the side show things familiar to you… like the bike you looked at yesterday on another site. The technology exists now that now know who you are and what your interests are to either get you to purchase something to help change your mind on something. Its fascinating and scary stuff all at the same time.

        You may be immune if you become Amish, but most of us have credit cards, ID’s, and the internet that helps anyone get a picture of what you are up to. I will quote the great philosopher Allen Funt who said “smile you are on Candid Camera!” Not its just not a TV show. It is our lives.

  • 45caliber

    “Can You Become Invisible To Government Spies?”
    Not if they already have their eyes on you…

    • $910553

      You can, however, become “invisible” to them at times of your choosing, if you make the right choices. Make sure any cell phone you carry can have its battery removed. No battery, no way for them to track you with it.

      Want YOUR end of an internet connection to be invisible? Go to a big-box store and buy a laptop with cash. Do NOT give them your phone number or address “for warranty purposes”. If necessary, make one up. Don’t get smart and try to give them the phone number for the White House, though. When you get that laptop home, DO NOT LET IT CONNECT to your internet connection. If the FedPigs are already looking, they can get its MAC address and be on the lookout for it. Do, however, wipe the hard drive and load an Open Source operating system. There is VERY little chance that Ubuntu has any FedPig backdoors. Then load TOR. Then go somewhere that has free wireless and use your new system in anonymity. But make sure you fit in. If you’re at Mickey D’s, for example, buy enough food to last for the time you’re there. And clean up when you are ready to leave. Don’t always go to the SAME free wireless location. And NEVER EVER let that laptop connect to your home internet connection. Of course, even with ALL THIS, if the other end of your connection is a FedPig looking to infiltrate, incite, and indict, well… Which is why one must be VERY careful if one is not a Lone Wolf.

      • 45caliber

        Not if they already have their eyes on you.
        Perhaps you aren’t aware of it but they take satellite pictures of the US every 4 seconds. They can follow you and see what you are doing every minute if they really want to do it. The only way to hide from that is to hide far underground – and that means staying there.

        • $910553

          They do NOT have the capability to take satellite photos of a resolution great enough to track an individual every four seconds. They do indeed have satellites which can take photos which should by now be able to reasonably identify an individual, but those satellites are not in geostationary orbit so one satellite cannot CONTINUALLY track anyone, and they do NOT have enough satellites to stage in a manner that would let them do what you claim. However, if you DO have a smartphone with GPS, and if you cannot remove its battery, any time you carry it with you they WILL know where you are.

          • 45caliber

            I don’t disagree about what you are saying about the phones, etc. but I do about the pictures. They had that capability back in the early ’70s. Over 60% of all spy satellites put up by the US is pointed at us. They could read a newspaper on the ground in the 60’s when I was in the military. How do you think they had McVey’s picture and flight path after the Oklahoma bombing so fast (one hour)? There was also a case about 1970 or so where a PI with a friend in the archives solved a very hard case of murder in LA this way. (He was fined and – I think – lost his license. The friend went to jail for releasing top secret documents.) They can read license plates THEN and followed the murderers in a car to their homes. The case was silenced very quickly in the press since they didn’t want the citizens to know they had and were using that tech.

          • $910553

            They DID NOT have the capability to track at such a level then, and they DO NOT NOW have such a capability. If they KNOW where you are going to be at a certain time, they CAN adjust the orbit of one or more of their satellites to be in a position to photograph a “target of interest” at that location as the satellite flies overhead. HOWEVER, the satellite CANNOT linger at that location. It’s ground track is CONTINUOUSLY moving, and is only in range to take such photos for a limited time, and can ONLY DO SO WHEN THERE ARE NO significant clouds overhead. And they only have a very FEW satellites with those capabilities.

          • 45caliber

            Ahh! I didn’t realize that you were working for the government. Sorry to offend you.
            However, for those of you who AREN’T government, the satellites do exist. They don’t have to “adjust” a satellite to take a photo of any particular area of the US. They cover the entire country. Cloud cover means nothing when they can take (at least heat photos) pictures of you through roofs. They even show that on TV once in awhile. You MIGHT lose them if you went into a multistory mall and mingled with a crowd but its still doubtful with the programming that is out now to ID people.
            And only a “FEW” satellites? There are several thousand. Yes, they orbit – and yes, they have enough to cover everything. The first thing Oblama signed the day he was first sworn in as President was permission to put half a dozen more into orbit to replace some old ones without the necessary updates.

          • $910553

            You are truly a special person. You understand what it takes to put a satellite into earth orbit? You understand how orbits work? Start here, Binky:
            None of your “information” is the least bit accurate.

  • $910553

    I would not trust a VPN to protect you from prying FedPig eyes if you run it on a computer that has Microsoft, Apple, or Google software installed. Smart money says EACH of those has at least one back door for use by the Feds. Same holds true if the computer you connect to via VPN has any such software. They don’t NEED to decode anything if they can get it in clear text at EITHER end.

  • Dave

    Ever see the movie “Into the Wild”? There is your invisability…

    You go on the public domain anywhere, you use credit cards… your actions can be tracked.

    We like that when terrorist acts are twarted or a criminal is caught… But the idea that people who do not commit crimes is also subject to this same level of scrutiny is highly troubling to alot to people. Nobody, I mean nobody should expect anything resembling privacy on the internet. Anyone who does is a fool.

    We are at the point in technology you are on dept video cameras, your buying habits are tracked down to where products are placed in a particular part of a shelf to buy and then content is sent to your e-mail or to the sites you vist it pop up ads. Its called “Big Data” and they use complex analytics to determine who you are through your buying habits. Its the new world. We are all part of it. If you do not like it, become a mountainperson in Alaska with no job, no credit cards and no internet. That is the only way you escape being seen in the new global economy and world.