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 »
IN 2014
Pentagon Warned Flynn Not To Accept Foreign Payments
1 minutes ago
BREAKING
WOULD PUSH DEADLINE TO MAY 5
One-Week Spending Bill On The Table
12 minutes ago
BREAKING

Members of Congress are eyeing a one-week spending bill which would keep the government open past the Friday night deadline, giving lawmakers an extra week to iron out a long-term deal to fund the government. Without any action, the government would run out of funding starting at midnight Saturday. “I am optimistic that a final funding package will be completed soon," said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Source:
WILL BE RENEGOTIATED
Trump: I’m Not Pulling Out of NAFTA
2 hours ago
THE LATEST

"President Trump informed Mexican President Pena Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday afternoon that he will not pull the U.S. from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) despite reports earlier in the day that he had considered doing so. ... The three leaders agreed to proceed quickly with renegotiation plans as the initial review process comes to a close."

Source:
NEVADA LAWMAKERS STILL NOT SATISFIED
House Puts Yucca Mountain Back on the Table
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"A new bill to revive a permanent nuclear waste repository in Yucca Mountain, Nev., fails to address the concerns of Nevada lawmakers, suggesting the latest attempt may not resolve a 20-year impasse over the issue." The state's congressional delegation "shared their opposition to the nuclear waste policy amendment during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing focused on the legislation," and promised that Gov. Brian Sandoval would oppose it at every turn. "The new bill aims to finally use some $31 billion that has accumulated in the Nuclear Waste Fund, set aside in 1982 to collect specifically for a permanent repository."

Source:
SENATORS SAY LITTLE WAS LEARNED AT MEETING
Much Ado About Nothing on North Korea?
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Despite bussing nearly every senator to the White House grounds on Wednesday for a briefing on North Korea, the administration didn't have much to tell them. Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley said he didn't learn anything he couldn't read in the newspaper, while Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth called it a "dog and pony show."

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