Future Tense

How to Shield Your Calls, Chats, and Internet Browsing From Government Surveillance

Trapped in the office talking on her phone
Want to hide your communications from the NSA?

Photo by Xstock/iStockphoto/Thinkstock

If you have followed the startling revelations about the scope of the U.S. government’s surveillance efforts in recent days, you may have thought you were reading about the end of privacy. But even when faced with the most ubiquitous of modern surveillance, there are ways to keep your communications away from prying eyes.

On Thursday, the Washington Post and the Guardian revealed a top-secret National Security Agency program called PRISM, which reportedly involves mining private data from the servers of companies including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, AOL, and Yahoo. The tech giants have denied participating in the program—but according to a leaked set of NSA slides, PRISM involves the monitoring of emails, file transfers, photos, videos, chats, and even live surveillance of search terms. Separate disclosures have revealed that the NSA is scooping up millions of phone records from at least three major phone networks in the United States, using the data as part of program the White House says is aimed at finding terrorists.

Not every communication can be tracked and eavesdropped on by the government, however, and there are ways to reduce the chances of being snooped on. First, instead of browsing the Internet in a way that reveals your IP address, you can mask your identity by using an anonymizing tool like Tor or by connecting to the Web using a Virtual Private Network. Additionally, you can avoid Google search by using an alternative like Ixquick, which has solid privacy credentials and says it does not log any IP addresses or search terms or share information with third parties.

When it comes to sending emails, if you are using a commercial provider that has been linked to the PRISM spy initiative, you can throw a spanner in the NSA’s works by learning how to send and receive encrypted emails. PGP or its free cousin GPG are considered the standard for email security, and these can be used to both encrypt and decrypt messages—meaning you can thwart surveillance unless you are unlucky enough to have Trojan spyware installed on your computer.

Novice computer users learning how to use PGP or GPG may find it a daunting prospect at first, but there are plenty of tutorials online for both Mac and Windows users that can help guide you through the process. For journalists working with confidential sources, attorneys seeking to ensure attorney–client privilege, or others whose work requires secure communications, learning how to use PGP or GPG is an absolute necessity in 2013. Organizations seeking to protect themselves from email grabs could go one step further: They could take more control of their messages by setting up their own email server instead of relying on a third-party service, helping ensure no secret court orders can be filed to gain covert access to confidential files. And if you need to store private documents online, you can use Cloudfogger in conjunction with Dropbox.

For instant messaging and online phone or video chats, you can avoid Microsoft and Google services like Skype and Gchat by adopting more secure alternatives. Jitsi can be used for peer-to-peer encrypted video calls, and for encrypted instant message chats you can try using an “off the record” plugin with Pidgin for Windows users or Adium for Mac. Like using PGP encryption, both Pidgin and Adium can take a little bit of work to set up—but there are tutorials to help ease the pain, like this for setting up Adium and this tutorial for Pidgin.

As for phone calls, if you want to shield against eavesdropping or stop the NSA obtaining records of who you are calling and when, there are a few options. You could use an encryption app like Silent Circle to make and receive encrypted calls and send encrypted texts and files, though your communications will be fully secure only if both parties to the call, text or file transfer are using the app. Other than Silent Circle, you could try RedPhone for making encrypted calls or TextSecure for sending encrypted texts.

In an unprecedented report published Tuesday, the United Nations special envoy on free expression warned that due to advances in technology, governments’ effectiveness in conducting surveillance is “no longer limited by scale or duration.” Two days later, the coincidental disclosures about the NSA’s phone records grab and PRISM program seemed to hammer home the envoy’s point: A new frontier of sweeping secret surveillance is not a conspiracy theory but a burgeoning reality. However, it is not an Orwellian dystopia—at least not yet. Tools to circumvent government monitoring exist and are freely available. The onus is on us as individuals to learn how to use and adopt them.