Americans (and now other countries) are becoming increasingly concerned with the online protection of their personal information. There have been numerous stories in the press lately of hacked websites, identity theft, and eavesdropping, among many other alarming “criminal” acts. Recently, the Washington Post ran a story that included the publishing of four slides, all leaked from the United States National Security Agency (NSA). These slides clearly discussed, in extreme detail, how the domestic PRISM program collects its data.
Alarmingly enough, the collection process is incredibly simple. All that has to transpire in order for data collection to begin is for an NSA analyst to identify a potential target for surveillance and then ask a supervisor to approve the request. What if you happen to be one of these unfortunate individuals who is targeted? Is there a way that you can forgo the monitoring process and increase your online protection for your data and browsing activities?
Most experts agree that PRISM is capable of creating “wiretaps” on high capacity fiber optics and watches the data flows past. These wiretaps are easily placed at the Internet connections of such noteworthy conglomerates as Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, and Google, with most of their servers located in the United States.
Copies of the information traveling along these optic signals are diverted and re-routed to a location that is specifically operated by the NSA. Here it is categorized and indexed. Afterwards, it is sent back for analysis to the NSA. Most of this collected data is transferred by methods of plain text protocols. These are simply packets of information that contain a simple text header with a clear payload (the actual data).
However, what the Washington Post story also revealed is that when the payload is encrypted, the NSA is typically unable to crack the code. The below checklist includes ways to minimize the threat of potential NSA (and other hackers/spyware/trojans) monitoring for both digital voice and Internet traffic, leading to an increase in protection for your online activities.
1. Encryption of Internet traffic
A sure sign that communication between your web browser and a website is encrypted will be the use of the “https://” SSL protocol preceding the website address. By always typing this prior to entering your URL name into the browser, an encryption certificate will be downloaded from the website automatically (if it supports encryption). If the “https” is not clearly showing in your web browser, then the communication between your browser and the webserver is not encrypted. Check your most commonly visited websites for encryption. Some websites have better encryption than others. You can easily test all websites by visiting SSL Labs.
2. Disable website tracking
3. Search anonymously
Everyone is well aware that Google keeps track of all of our searches and Internet activity. This is how they create profiles on us and generate revenue. Ever notice that when 2 different people search for the same thing on Google, you each receive different results.
There are many other types of search engines which are significantly less concerned with our virtual actions. By switching to one of these other available options, such as Startpage or Duckduckgo, you’ll see significant online protection against unwanted monitoring and tracking.
4. Never trust anyone for your confidential data
If you happen to be one of those online users who is using Dropbox, iCloud, SkyDrive, or Google Drive, your online protection may be in severe jeopardy. Make sure to encrypt all of your files before you transmit them online. Never rely on the encryption protection provided by the cloud provider. AxCrypt is considered a viable choice and complements online storage services.
5. File encryption
TrueCrypt (also free) is a type of encryption system used for scrambling the contents of files. By using this or a similar type of system with a strong algorithm and big “key”, you will be better able to control the access of your files and documents by outside sources through the use of password protection methods.
6. Use traffic tunnels
The installation of a proxy server or VPN network will encrypt your online activity by sending your data to another outside location for decryption first, which will significantly increase your protection. Every time that you transmit data, emails, or web requests of any kind, the Internet tracks your activity through the use of headers that contain personal information of your address, the address of your destination, and the time and date of the activity. Proxy servers and VPN networks obscure your actions and effectively help make them anonymous. Here is an article with a listing of free anonymous web proxy servers.
7. Secure your operating system
Install an operating system that is “read-only”. This will provide significant online protection for your PC against all forms of unwanted programs, applications, and software. Many Linux distributions have the ability to automatically detect PC hardware immediately upon booting of your system. Privatix and Puppy Linux are some good examples for increased security.
8. Use safe text
You might be surprised to learn that all Skype conversations are monitored by Microsoft. Additionally, texting features on digital phones is not at all secure. Most email services do not employ encryption protocols and therefore do not provide online protection either.
Some people try to secure their systems by installing PGP software (Pretty Good Privacy). This is a type of encryption software (supporting email) that attempts to make your conversations unreadable. However, PGP can be difficult to install and manage. There are instead some very reliable phone apps that can encrypt all types of text messages and conversations. Examples include iChat, CryptoCat, and Silent Circle apps.
9. Regulate your voice activity
Smartphones are a wonderful invention, but their lack of security and encryption features leaves us vulnerable to malicious apps, phishing scams, and numerous forms of malware. Microsoft even allows the weakening of Skype voice encryption services to accommodate lawful interception of our signals and voice conversations. Silent Circle launched recently to facilitate end-to-end encrypted communication (voice smartphone calls, conference calls, text messages, video, emails) where the encryption keys are kept by the subscribers and not on their servers.
Of course, even if you were to follow this entire checklist of options, there is no perfect method for protecting your systems from a very determined intruder. These recommendations will definitely make tracking your virtual activity increasingly more difficult. Ensure you research each option before implementing to understand what you are doing and don’t accidentally lock yourself out of your own files.