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
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:
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: Gibberbot (Android), 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.