You can’t stop the NSA from tracking you, but you can make it harder

stop the nsa from tracking youWhat can regular people do to stop NSA spying? That’s the big question in the wake of the NSA surveillance news that’s shaken the nation.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a simple answer. There’s no way to block NSA surveillance completely. Even if you rebelled against technology, ditched your mobile phone, and avoided using heavily-tracked web services like Facebook and Google, you’d still be on surveillance cameras that capture your face, license plate scanners, and credit databases, among other things.

But let’s not get pessimistic. There are tools you can use to make it harder for others to track you. They won’t eliminate your footprint, but they’ll blur the picture of you that emerges through your data. Read on to learn about them.  

Let’s start with a little context. It’s important to remember that almost all surveillance starts with private companies. Apple, AT&T, Microsoft, Google, Verizon…companies like these mine your data for commercial reasons, but they end up having to give it up to law enforcement when asked. Staying more private means keeping your data out of the hands of the private companies that feed the government.

Once the private sector collects personal data, three main things can happen to it. You might not care about all three, but you’ll probably care about one:

 1. It’s lost in a data breach. Look at the LivingSocial breach as an example: 50 million people’s names, emails, birthdates, and encrypted passwords gone in one hack.

2. The company misuses it in a way you didn’t expect or intend, that violates your privacy, or that makes you uncomfortable. Facebook is a champion of this kind of misuse by constantly changing its privacy policies and eroding default protections.

3. The government may use it. Enter PRISM and the NSA.

 Whether you’re concerned with 1, 2, or 3, the results are the same and the solution for consumers is the same: use tools and best practices to avoid private companies from ever getting your data in the first place. Privacy laws certainly need an overhaul, but regulation isn’t an immediate solution for the everyday Internet user.

Tools to help you go private

For more in-depth guides, we recommend the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Surveillance Self Defense site and Prism-Break.org.

Also note that 1), some of these tools are kind of complicated if you aren’t tech savvy; and 2), many require 2-way encryption to work (so both you and the person you’re communicating with would have to have it installed).

A good starting place if you’re a Firefox user is our collection of simple-to-use privacy add-ons.

Here are some of our favorite tools that you can try:

stop the nsa from tracking you

Internet Service Provider (ISP): Sonic
Wireless provider: Cricket
Encrypt an email account you already have: Thunderbird with Enigmail; Mac Mail with GPGTools; Outlook with GPG4Win
Private email clients: Unspyable, Countermail, or Shazzle
Search engines: Ixquick and DuckDuckGo
Mobile calls: RedPhone, Silent Circle
Android proxy: Orbot
iOS proxy: FoxyProxy (configure it as a proxy, not a VPN)
Mobile photos: ObscuraCam
Text messaging: TextSecure
Online tracker blocking: our very own DNTMe
Web-based chatting: Adium with OTR, Cryptocat
Mobile chatting: ChatSecure (iOS)Virtual private networks (VPNs): iVPN, Private Wifi
Hard drive encryption: TrueCrypt
Web browser: Tor Browser (and Mozilla’s Firefox is the best major browser on privacy)
Mobile browser: Onion Browser (iOS), Orweb (Android)

There’s an emerging consumer privacy movement built around the premise of giving regular web users (regardless of tech-savvy) the power to limit the personal info collected about them, so expect the usability and availability of privacy tools to skyrocket soon. For example, if you’re a user of our stuff, then you probably know that we have a tool in the works that will help mask your contact information. We’re actually optimistic that people will have more privacy 5 years from now than they do today.

Mindsets to help you go private

Adopt the mindset of only giving out the personal data that you absolutely must—for example, at checkout or when signing up for an online account—to significantly reduce your digital footprint. Avoid companies that don’t respect your privacy. Just as one bad actor can induce a privacy scare, one good actor – like Edward Snowden, or you – can take the necessary steps to reduce your exposure and strengthen your sense of privacy. Please spread the word to the people you know that privacy invasions are a big deal. And realize that powerful web services like Facebook offer zero protection.

Most of the recent stories about big data collection and breaches have a central theme: the little guy matters and can do something. Whether that individual is a Facebook user who refuses to give the site her real name, an NSA whistleblower who tells the world when it’s being watched, or a person using a tool to block companies from tracking him online, each person has the power to move privacy forward or diminish it.

You should be concerned about the lack of privacy today, but not pessimistic. You already have tools and services that give you a say in the matter, and the best is yet to come.




46 comments shared on this article:

  • Holly Kang says:

    I care, but I’m not afraid of them. When I first read about this I jumped up and down, flapping my arms to the NSA on FB. Asked if I had their attention and gave them my full blown opinion of their behavior. I’m sure no one cares, but got that off my chest. I use FB to stay in touch with my granddaughter (18 now), and people I knew back east in high school 40 years ago. These people can’t hurt me for stating my opinion and if they do, they prove me right.

    • tuky says:

      There are case after case of people being hurt? Head in the sand perhaps?

      Anyone who has read Facebook’s tell-all policies would be ignorant to proceed. I have never ever used Facebook and communicate with friends and family just fine. If you use Facebook and shit goes down (as it did with my nephew who had to start facets of his life from scratch), then you are to blame. If you give your SSN to, say, WalMart or dentist’s corporation, in the end you do not have the opportunity to blame them.

      Most of this is in the privacy act of 1974 – which state and feds are currently conveniently ignoring. It’s up to you.

      • tuky says:

        1st sentence should read:
        There are case after case of people being hurt!
        Head in the sand perhaps?

        [while using this website, I used DoNotTrackMe on Chrome browser]

    • the nsa shouldn’t exist they monitor us and make radical opinions they say it is security but it is realy just another way for the government to spy on us all thanks to a bunch of scams if you ask me the government is filled with communist bastards

    • Thorben Kaufmann says:

      Well, really?
      They are not really interested in every single word you write or say! They want your statistical behaviour to interact an manipulate you! And that’s what they are doing. Manipulation of mind. Steering of market. And: what they do in Europe or better Germany is: spying of knowledge and technology efforts.
      But what they produce is: Bare hate against our “brother” or “friend”! Ask the people here in Germany: They start hating USA and laughing about the system what can only stand by beeing brutal in any way.
      USA is not a democratic state union an will never be if it goes like that! Wake up! And stand up!
      I’ve been in the Staates many times for business and meeting old friends. By now I nearly cut off all contacts. Why is everybody sleepy an always telling the bullshit of “I do not have anything what is worth to cover…”. Sorry, that’s the same bullshit like Grandpa’s generation told about Hitler: “We did not know about all this..!”
      Shocked? Wake up! For heavens sake!
      Greets from east side of atlantic.

  • CT says:

    I enjoy reading and receiving the valuable information provided by Albine. I am grateful for your DNTMe+ product and have been using it for over a year now. I must take issue however with your characterization of Edward Snowden as one of the good guys. I do not believe the narrative we have received to date concerning Mr. Snowden and his activities are accurate let along reasonably complete enough to make such an assertion.

    With regard to the security issues concerning telephone Meta data I disagree with those that believe the content of a phone call is constitutionally protected, but the fact of a phone call is not. Traffic analysis is of higher value to the SIGINT community than content. I consider the mass collection of telephone Meta data from the American public a ‘General Warrant’ and a direct violation of the 4th amendment.

    The publicity generated by Mr. Snowden’s illegal disclosures are welcome, however there is nothing honorable or noble about the method he has taken to violate his oath.

    • XG says:

      Care to provide a better way for Mr. Snowden to provide that information?

    • nuno baptista says:

      ”….. however there is nothing honorable or noble about the method he has taken to violate his oath…..”

      really ? i guess he should have reported the NSA’a abuse against MILLIONS of people internally, yup that would have definitely solved it !!

      jeez, some people simply DON’T GET IT !! :-b

    • Atwas911 says:

      His “oath” does not apply to keeping criminal activity hidden.

      His oath is only to protect legal activities that are not in violation of the constitution.

      This entire situation is about criminals wanting to keep their crimes private and willing to murder and throw people in prison for life to continue to do so.

    • Zolan says:

      You have to remember that the government has tools to post as many different people to make it seem like common citizens are leaning a certain way such as Snowden not being a hero. Then, the vast majority of people do their best impression of sheep and start following these beliefs.

      Think for yourselves and you’ll be fine. I personally think he is a patriot that has done an amazing thing. It is up to us to follow through and try to fix it.

    • SC says:

      “The publicity generated by Mr. Snowden’s illegal disclosures are welcome, however there is nothing honorable or noble about the method he has taken to violate his oath.”

      Is there anything honorable or noble about continuing to bow to the demands of the United States government when they are in fact a corporate entity? A corporate entity (which almost everything on Earth sadly is – including States, Countries, Nations, Persons) cannot make rules over any living soul. If you read about the UCC and Commerce Law you would come to find that even within the legal code system (created by corporate entities) ALL corporate ‘governments’ are not even complying with their own code. Anything LAWFUL trumps anything LEGAL. Sadly, your viewpoint does not seem to suggest you’re aware of this.

      You also state, ” I consider the mass collection of telephone Meta data from the American public a ‘General Warrant’ and a direct violation of the 4th amendment.” Well as it turns out the NSA (and others) are not just collecting Meta data. Article here – http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2013/08/you-wont-believe-whats-going-on-with-government-spying-on-americans.html

      See how you feel about Oaths to corporate entities who break even their own code and regulations ALL day long. Ed Snowden has done nothing wrong whatsoever. He’s trying to wake everyone up as to the utter illegality (and thus UNLAWFUL) acts committed in your name.

    • Alex says:

      What oath did he make? If any, as a 3rd part operative of a US government agency, the oath should have been made to the US constitution, that is what ALL intelligence officers should be making an oath to. That’s what should be protected, hence an oath to protect it above all else. If the constitution is being violated, then what is left to protect?

  • LV says:

    While I have been keeping abreast of the Great Snowden Reveal (so many articles, so little time), I know I am short on some details. I am very unclear as to what “oath” Snowden violated. I realize his position must have required some non-disclosure agreements in his contract, but isn’t disclosing what was once concealed an integral aspect of what makes a “whistle-blower” a “whistle-blower?” Now, I do know there is a Congressional Oath. I suspect they must not be doing a very good job at fulfilling it; Gallup poll released June 13, 2013 has Congressional approval rating at 10%.

  • lavendude says:

    Can you give an indication of how far away the MaskMe product is, how much it’s likely to cost (ball park if no specifics have been decided) and whether it will be available globally (I’m thinking of the mobile phone cover, which is of less importance to me than email).

    Thanks.

  • Jay says:

    Just imagine if our foundling fathers thought like you…we would still be speaking in the queens tongue.

  • Erwin says:

    Wow, it still amazes me when I see comments like “I got nothing to hide, so I don’t care and neither should you” going around the web and coming out of the mouths of politicians. I also have placed some serious question marks at the alleged prevented attacks. I’m a sucker for privacy. Question me when you find me a suspect, but don’t follow me around all the time. I’m just an ordinary guy and I don’t appreciate the intrusion. It’s my right, OK? Thanks, Abine, for helping me with that.

    By the way: maybe Americans should be a little bit more concerned about how big their defense budget has become in comparison to the rest of the world. Crisis? What crisis?

  • mr says:

    1)Is DNT + MaskMe like Ghostery? –
    2)Even if using Tor can also be infered who you are by your web searches and acitivity??

    3)Sometimes it wont let me use Tor, connection refused, how can I override this if the ISP company doesnt let you use?

    4)Also, what are the names of the Proxies and Bridges I need to enter?
    5) Sometimes it says something about a Fascist Firewall that wont let me save the published bridges?

    • 1) DNTMe is similar to Ghostery, but there are a few significant differences. First, DNTMe blocks tracking by default right when you install it. With Ghostery, you have to go in and turn blocking on. Second, DNTMe safely blocks and rebuilds social buttons, so you can still share if you want to; Ghostery does not. Third, Abine is a consumer privacy company that’s funded by our customers and our investors. In contrast, the company that owns Ghostery (Evidon, formerly Better Advertising, Inc.) is funded by advertisers and businesses paying them for ad data and compliance. You can read more about that here: http://mashable.com/2013/06/17/ad-blocker-helps-ad-industry/, and here: http://www.businessinsider.com/evidon-sells-ghostery-data-to-advertisers-2013-6

      MaskMe is very different from both DNTMe and Ghostery. It lets you give out masked, alias information online when websites ask for it, like email addresses, phone numbers, and even credit cards. It lets you use the web and sign up for things without giving away your real personal info.

      2) Tor is a great privacy tool, but it’s not 100% foolproof. You can read more about that in this blog post by the people at Tor: https://blog.torproject.org/blog/prism-vs-tor
      3, 4, and 5) These are pretty detailed proxy questions and it’s a little outside our area of expertise, as we don’t make proxies or VPNs. I’d suggest you get in touch with whatever proxy you’re using and ask them.

  • notgiven says:

    ok all your TOR idiots…. TOR was designed by NAVAL INTELLIGENCE!@!!!! DUH… nuff said…..
    Second: NSA operates many of the VPN providers out there. so when you “opt out” you are actually opting in…
    Any encryption only certified for “top secret” has already been cracked by NSA. (think FIPS).
    Any SSL based encryption for email or HTTPS has been cracked since the 90′s get with it guys this is old news.
    (think SSLEASY)
    Who do you think contributes TONS of free software and portions of LINUX? immmmm… GOOGLE….
    why? because there are backdoors there too….
    You CAN NOT GET AWAY FROM THE NSA and still be connected.
    get with the program you neophytes…. you little kiddies… I was doing encryption before PGP was a dream….
    Who do you think RUNS THE GAME? the NSA you idiots…. the only way not to loose is NOT TO PLAY.

  • John Doe says:

    Hi everyone,

    I don’t get it…

    It we are trying to get privacy and safety from the likes of the NSA, CIA, FBI, MI6, because wanting good old plain privacy isn’t a crime why would these types of services be consistantly offered that are based and operated within the US or UK and its signatory (allies) countries? That’s like trusting the theives with ones safe of gold. It won’t be too hard for them to gain access to it sooner or later whist it’s in their custody.

    Wouldn’t one feel much safer to have all these services offered and based in countries that are naturally neutral or better still mildly opposed to them so they won’t be so easily bullied into submission, I would be.

    Of course honey pots can be setup anywhere by anyone, but its just another layer of difficulty they’d have to navigate which is to all freedom loving netizens favor.

    Not too mention as equally crucial all the hardware devices and software that are manufactured in / from or by US companies would need to be reconsidered also to minimise exposure to back doors in them.

    If one wants to speak adversley of China about freedoms, one would naturally use a set of US devices, and if one wants to speak adversely of US rapidly growing lack of freedoms, one might is a set of NON US devices.

    Thoughts anyone.

  • Ryan says:

    Keep in mind that Cricket was just bought out by AT&T so that may not be the most feasible option any longer. Source: http://money.cnn.com/2013/07/12/technology/att-leap-cricket/index.html

  • John says:

    Also there is BitMessage (https://bitmessage.org).

    The Macintosh version is here:
    http://sourceforge.net/projects/bitmessagemac/files/

  • dennis says:

    Too bad sonic.net works very closely with the FBI and also allows them rent free office space since ’98 or ’99 which they are still using today. They also love to use a shell at bolt.sonic.net

  • First they came for the communists,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

    Then they came for the socialists,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

    Then they came for the trade unionists,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

    Then they came for me,
    and there was no one left to speak for me.”

    - Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)

  • Jeff Fann says:

    It’s very simple, as a USA citizen your allegiance is to the Constitution of the United States.

  • Axel Grackel says:

    Omelette/breaking eggs…

  • nunyabzwx says:

    @Holly Kang: You can bet your sweet bippee that you got their attention and you probably STILL have it.

    just sayin’

  • rick bzowy says:

    any update on MaskMe ??

  • jo 007 says:

    the attached website is aimed to stop NSA http://www.netspystop.com/
    even the best programmer cant find out how this can be circumvented

  • Bill says:

    Is there a version of MaskMe for either the iOS or Android?

  • Bill Babis says:

    You cannot be private. It is a game you won’t win though plenty of people will get your money trying. Myself, I don’t care what the NSA knows or doesn’t know about me. If they learn one thing, it should be that they need to be very afraid of me and millions of others. Enough said.

  • Matt says:

    I love it, most inspiring thing I’ve read here, and without a doubt begs the question, “when is enough, enough?” How many freedoms and rights are you willing to be stripped away before you speak up or take action. It is sad to think that some dont believe privacy isn’t something to be upset about losing unless you have something to hide. Personally, I believe that my privacy is part of my personal space and should remain personal. What happens when the government feels that for your safety criminals or felons should be fitted with tracers of some kind. Then before to long it will be that for your safety and convinence everyone should be fitted with tracers. Invasion of privacy is only the beginning, and for those of you who feel that you have nothing to hide, the government are not the only ones who can gain access to your personal information. I don’t see how anybody could be comfortable with the idea of someone, whom they have never met, being interested in having there personal information, to do whatever they please with it.

    So I ask again, “when is enough, enough?”

  • Daniel F says:

    Your kidding me. Chrome?

  • Daniel F says:

    What do people think of Openmailbox.org

  • Tip of proxy says:

    Yeah, or you can use some kind of anonymous proxy. I use: http://dontfollow.me

    U tell me.

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  • Mark says:

    Just use the Breadcrumbs concept:

  • Lori says:

    Facebook was meant to stay connected to friends, family and acquaintences. Possibly the new version of letter writing or note giving online. What is important to me is the individual has to like the individual or “they” don’t get to comment on what “you” posted. I believe someone crossed the line after being offended. When one man or women makes a situation bad, why is everyone in trouble. This sounds like all or nothing from school days!

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