Sorry, You Can’t Really Escape the NSA

Activists protest the surveillance of U.S. citizens by the NSA outside the Justice Department where President Barack Obama gave a major speech on reforming the NSA January 17, 2014.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Brendan Sasso
June 16, 2014, 5:34 p.m.

The world’s largest In­ter­net com­pan­ies and thou­sands of av­er­age In­ter­net users are try­ing to hide their private in­form­a­tion from gov­ern­ment snoop­ing.

The goal is to set up tech­no­lo­gic­al bar­ri­ers to the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s sweep­ing sur­veil­lance pro­grams. Rather than wait­ing for Con­gress to rein in the agency, many people want to take pri­vacy in­to their own hands.

But the truth is, ef­forts to im­prove on­line en­cryp­tion and se­cur­ity can’t totally thwart the NSA.

Joseph Lorenzo Hall, the chief tech­no­lo­gist for the Cen­ter for Demo­cracy and Tech­no­logy, said the idea of be­com­ing “NSA-proof” is “just silly.”

“If they want it, they can get it,” he said of the NSA’s ex­pert spies. The agency can hack or by­pass many se­cur­ity meas­ures if it is de­term­ined enough, Hall said.

And it doesn’t mat­ter how heav­ily en­cryp­ted an email is in trans­it if the NSA just forces the email pro­vider to turn the mes­sage over. While the NSA col­lects some of its data by sur­repti­tiously tap­ping in­to com­mu­nic­a­tions, much of the sur­veil­lance is done through court or­ders to In­ter­net and phone com­pan­ies.

Chris­toph­er Sog­hoi­an, the prin­cip­al tech­no­lo­gist for the Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on, said tech com­pan­ies such as Google could ham­string the NSA if they just stopped col­lect­ing so much in­form­a­tion about their users. If a com­pany doesn’t have in­form­a­tion on a per­son, there’s noth­ing to turn over to the gov­ern­ment.

Of course, that’s not likely to hap­pen any time soon. Google and oth­er com­pan­ies de­pend on col­lect­ing de­tailed data about their users for tar­geted ad­vert­ising.

“At the end of the day, you can only ex­pect so much from an ad­vert­ising com­pany,” Sog­hoi­an said. “Un­til we start pay­ing for these ser­vices, they’re only go­ing to go so far.”

While it’s im­possible to totally es­cape the NSA, mak­ing the agency’s job harder could be enough to avoid the drag­net sur­veil­lance. Gov­ern­ment ana­lysts aren’t likely to in­vest the time and re­sources to crack en­cryp­ted mes­sages un­less they really think there could be a con­nec­tion to ter­ror­ism.

Hall re­com­men­ded that people use a browser plug-in such as HT­TPS Every­where, which en­sures that users have a se­cure on­line con­nec­tion when pos­sible. He ad­ded that it’s par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult for the NSA to track the on­line activ­ity of people us­ing Tor, a soft­ware that reroutes traffic to hide its source.

Ma­jor tech com­pan­ies were shocked to learn last year that the NSA was tap­ping in­to the con­nec­tions between their over­seas data cen­ters and si­phon­ing off data. In the wake of the leaks, Google, Mi­crosoft, Ya­hoo, and Face­book have all taken steps to en­crypt their data-cen­ter con­nec­tions.

Google has al­ways tried to en­crypt its emails in trans­it, but that’s only ef­fect­ive if both the sender and the re­ceiv­er sup­port en­cryp­tion. Re­cently, Google has star­ted to pub­lish stat­ist­ics about which pro­viders sup­port en­cryp­tion in a bid to pres­sure more com­pan­ies to step up their se­cur­ity.

Emails that are en­cryp­ted in trans­it aren’t as se­cure as ones that have total end-to-end en­cryp­tion. Even Google can’t read the con­tents of emails that are totally en­cryp­ted. But end-to-end en­cryp­tion tools such as PGP are com­plic­ated and in­con­veni­ent to use. Google will soon launch its own end-to-end en­cryp­tion ex­ten­sion to try to make the pro­cess sim­pler, but the op­tion will still be real­ist­ic only for the most ded­ic­ated pri­vacy ad­voc­ates.

Ac­cord­ing to Sog­hoi­an, the No. 1 thing people can do to bet­ter pro­tect their pri­vacy is to re­frain from us­ing phones for any sens­it­ive con­ver­sa­tions.

“Tele­phone com­mu­nic­a­tions are just not se­cure,” he said, adding that people are bet­ter off re­ly­ing on In­ter­net voice ser­vices such as Skype and Fa­ce­Time. He also warned that stored com­mu­nic­a­tions like email are risky be­cause the NSA can go back and get mes­sages even years after they’re sent.

Hall re­com­men­ded that people leave their phones at home or wrap them in alu­min­um foil when they’re not us­ing them. He ac­know­ledged that be­fore the Snowden leaks, re­com­mend­ing that people wrap their phones in foil would have soun­ded crazy.

“The NSA is giv­ing the tin­foil-hat bri­gade a run for its money today,” he said.

What We're Following See More »
TRUMP CONTINUES TO LAWYER UP
Kasowitz Out, John Dowd In
2 days ago
THE LATEST

As the Russia investigation heats up, "the role of Marc E. Kasowitz, the president’s longtime New York lawyer, will be significantly reduced. Mr. Trump liked Mr. Kasowitz’s blunt, aggressive style, but he was not a natural fit in the delicate, politically charged criminal investigation. The veteran Washington defense lawyer John Dowd will take the lead in representing Mr. Trump for the Russia inquiry."

Source:
ALSO INQUIRES ABOUT PARDON POWER
Trump Looking to Discredit Mueller
2 days ago
THE LATEST

President Trump's attorneys are "actively compiling a list of Mueller’s alleged potential conflicts of interest, which they say could serve as a way to stymie his work." They plan to argued that Mueller is going outside the scope of his investigation, in inquiring into Trump's finances. They're also playing small ball, highlighting "donations to Democrats by some of" Mueller's team, and "an allegation that Mueller and Trump National Golf Club in Northern Virginia had a dispute over membership fees when Mueller resigned as a member in 2011." Trump is said to be incensed that Mueller may see his tax returns, and has been asking about his power to pardon his family members.

Source:
INCLUDES NY PROBE INTO MANAFORT
Why Yes, Mueller Is Looking into Trump Businesses
2 days ago
THE LATEST

In addition to ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, Robert Mueller's team is also "examining a broad range of transactions involving Trump’s businesses as well as those of his associates, according to a person familiar with the probe. FBI investigators and others are looking at Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings, Trump’s involvement in a controversial SoHo development in New York with Russian associates, the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, and Trump’s sale of a Florida mansion to a Russian oligarch in 2008, the person said. The investigation also has absorbed a money-laundering probe begun by federal prosecutors in New York into Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort."

Source:
Mueller Expands Probe to Trump Business Transactions
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team is "is examining a broad range of transactions involving Trump’s businesses as well as those of his associates", including "Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings, Trump’s involvement in a controversial SoHo development with Russian associates, the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow and Trump’s sale of a Florida mansion to a Russian oligarch in 2008."

Source:
ANALYSIS FROM CBO
32 Million More Uninsured by 2026 if Obamacare Repealed
2 days ago
THE LATEST

"A Senate bill to gut Obamacare would increase the number of uninsured people by 32 million and double premiums on Obamacare's exchanges by 2026, according to an analysis from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The analysis is of a bill that passed Congress in 2015 that would repeal Obamacare's taxes and some of the mandates. Republicans intend to leave Obamacare in place for two years while a replacement is crafted and implemented."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login