New Technology Beats Domestic Snooping
By:   //  Investigative Reports, Tech

We have met the enemy and he is – us? With each new revelation about the domestic surveillance efforts of the National Security Agency, it’s becoming clear to many Americans that the data thieves they have to worry about aren’t terrorists half a world away – but their very own government. Now, as new details emerge about NSA’s ultra secret PRISM program for gathering masses of data from leading Internet services, tech developers are rolling out new apps and devices to help users block cybersnooping at home or abroad.

Domestic spying isn’t new. For decades, agencies such as the FBI and CIA routinely wiretapped phones, bugged rooms and generally eavesdropped on the conversations of anyone they even remotely suspected of criminal or un-American activities. But surging anxiety over terrorism in the post 9/11 world kicked those spying efforts into a higher gear. Now it’s clear that anyone’s information can be caught in the net cast by US intelligence services, to be used in ways no one really knows.

The National Security Agency is the most secret of the nation’s intelligence services. Employing thousands of analysts and data gatherers working out of its massive headquarters at Ft. Meade, MD, and listening posts around the world, the NSA devotes enormous resources toward intercepting and analyzing information shared between people in targeted areas across the globe – and at home.

The Edward Snowden incident – in which former NSA contractor Snowden leaked top secret documents to the press — put a very public eye on a domestic surveillance operation capable of intercepting data from any computer, cell phone, or other device. That operation is spearheaded by a secrecy-cloaked program called PRISM, which has direct access to treasure troves of personal information on major internet services, including Google, Facebook, and Microsoft.

Those companies have so far denied that they’ve been cooperating with the NSA by providing that direct access. But whether they did or not, the very possibility of collecting information such as search histories, banking information, text message content, Skype chats, and emails sent chills down the spines of tech users around the country.

Enter a number of new companies like Silent Circle, makers of the Blackphone, a modified Android phone that’s touted as impossible to hack. They’re busy reaping the rewards of a brand new niche in cybersecurity: finding ways to thwart NSA spyware – or anybody else’s – with a variety of new apps and devices that claim to make it virtually impossible to hijack personal data from internet sites or device to device transmissions.

These new services and apps offer any user the tools to thwart spying. But with so many products hitting the market, what are the best options? According to the tech site Heavy, quality anti snooping technology should have at least two of these three features: decentralization, open sourcing, and encryption.

When data is stored all in one place, such as on Facebook, all a snooper has to do is hack that one site and everything is up for grabs. Decentralized storage, such as on one or more computer hard drives, keeps data off those kinds of centralized sites and makes it harder to collect everything in one place.

Secure services should also be open-sourced, which means that the code that created the site is available for anyone to view and tweak. Open sourced apps rely on users’ input for fixing bugs and closing holes, and the way the site operates is completely transparent and accountable, unlike Facebook and Google, which won’t allow a look behind the scenes.

Encryption is the true gatekeeper for data security. Layer upon layer of password or site-key triggered encrypted code makes information virtually – if not completely – impervious to interception. That’s why security experts caution against sending sensitive information over public-access computers and wi-fi in places like hotels and coffee houses.

The new anti-snoop technology ranges from obvious solutions like the Blackphone to mobile apps that conceal the contents of text messages – all the way to a complete internet blackout app for the truly paranoid. There’s even a way to hide the IP address where email originated by routing it through several proxy computers. The new tech ranges from fairly pricey – the Blackphone and its competitor the Redphone, for example – to nearly or completely free.

For every well-known service out there, there’s a spyproof alternative. Like Skype? Then there’s Jitsi, its new, encrypted counterpart. Use Facebook? There’s now Diaspora*, which combines features of Facebook and Twitter in a single, secure site.

For photo and video sharing, a decentralized, open source site called GNU Media Goblin works much like YouTube or Flickr, but a user’s data is stored on the home computer, rather than on the site, where it can be easily hacked. And interested users can also look at the site’s complete code before uploading anything.

And how about texting? Try BlackSMS if you have an iPhone. It’s a low-cost, downloadable app that converts text messages into opaque black bubbles that are sent like regular text messages. When they appear on a recipient’s phone, they can be opened only with that user’s password protected version of the app. Not an iPhone user? Cryptocat offers untraceable messaging for Android devices.

If you mistrust the entire internet, there’s the Darknet, which acts like a Star Trek cloaking device for web browsing anywhere on the ‘net, or any kind of data exchange such as emails, instant messaging, and text. And then there’s Tor, an email protocol favored by Edward Snowden himself, which hides the origins of an email by bouncing it among proxy computers with their own IP addresses.

Despite being outed in the media and assailed by civil libertarians everywhere, the NSA’s domestic surveillance is likely here to stay. And developers are playing a cat and mouse game to stay ahead of the world’s heavy hitters in data collection. But for now, the new tech gives worried users some nifty tools to keep information out of the hands of snoops – especially the homegrown variety. (Carla McKinney) (Image: Flickr | nadrzany)



Dachis, Adam. “Black SMS Encrypts and Decryots Your Text Messages.” Lifehacker Technology. 10 Feb 2012

Hall, Chris. “Spy-Proof Your Life: The Blackphone and Other Gadgets to Help Battle Big Brother.” Yahoo News UK. 1 Feb 2014

Schroeder, Stan. “Blackphone Could Be the First NSA Proof Phone.” Mashable Tech 15 Jan 2014

Thompson, Clive. “The Darkest Place On The Internet Isn’t Just For Criminals.” Wired. Oct 2013

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