We live in a world where people rightfully worry about whether their electronic communications are being tracked by the government, by companies or by criminals. Recent revelations by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden have certainly demonstrated that the government has the capability of knowing who you’re calling and how long you’re speaking. Other leaks indicate the possibility of government spying on email and social network activity. And, of course, there is also widespread tracking of our web activity by marketing companies to help them better target advertising based on who you are and what you’re interested in.
Tools you can use
At his press conference last Friday, President Obama suggested that there could be future technologies to protect people against government snooping, but there are some technologies in place now that can help. “As technology develops further,” he said, “technology itself may provide us some additional safeguards.” He suggested that “maybe we can embed technologies in there that prevent the snooping regardless of what government wants to do. I mean, there may be some technological fixes that provide another layer of assurance.”
While it may not be possible to completely eliminate any potential snooping (other than abandoning technology completely), there are things you can do to minimize the chances of anyone — in or outside government — from knowing what you’re up to.
One tool is Tor, a free service that is described as “virtual tunnels that allows people and groups to improve their privacy and security on the Internet” by providing “the foundation for a range of applications that allow organizations and individuals to share information over public networks without compromising their privacy.”
Tor makes it possible to avoid being tracked by web sites use and to use email, chat and other services anonymously. It also allows users to access services that may be blocked by their Internet service provider (in some countries by government order).
A new iPhone, Android, Windows and Blackberry app called Seecrypt“allows you to make and receive unlimited, secure voice calls and text messages between Seecrypt Mobile-enabled devices, anywhere in the world.”
Most web browsers have a private or “incognito” mode that assures that your browsing session isn’t recorded on your own computer, though they can’t guarantee against the government accessing data about you stored on online servers. There are also browser extensions such as Abine’s Do Not Track, AVG’s Do Not Track and Ghostery that can help prevent tracking.
When it comes to online chatting Timothy Lee blogged for the Washington Post blog, about a “chat extension called OTR – for “off the record”- (that) offers ‘end-to-end’ encryption” that can prevent eaves dropping.”
Lee also recommends ways to protect phone calls including Silent Circle that “is believed to be impervious to wiretapping, even by the NSA,” or a secure Android app called RedPhone that says it “provides end-to-end encryption for your calls, securing your conversations so that nobody can listen in.”
Secret services shutting down
Some of the services that allow for secure communications have shut down recently, reportedly because of government pressure. On August 9th, Silent Circle shut down its secure email service, according to a company blog post and a few days before that Lavabit, a secure email system reportedly used by Snowden shut down. Lavabit’s owner Ladar Levison blogged, “ I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision.” He told Forbes’ Kashmir Hill, that he’s taking a break from email, adding “If you knew what I know about email, you might not use it either.”
This post first appeared on Forbes.com