As Americans, we expect the government to stay out of our personal lives. Unfortunately, government on both sides of party lines is having trouble doing so. You might recall the Patriot Act of 2001, the Protect America Act of 2007 and then the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which cumulatively granted the federal government more power regarding domestic surveillance. They also granted telecom companies immunity to lawsuits. In other words, the federal government has granted itself the power to tap phones, read e-mails, monitor bank accounts and track the myriad of things Americans do online.
Unfortunately, the Democrats agreed to these Republican-sponsored bills. Illegal wiretapping has yet to be overturned, even after campaign promises by Obama to stop this activity. In January, Wired magazine reported that the Obama administration “was on board with the Bush administration’s reasoning for this case,” referring to a case where two lawyers sued to have a classified document released. This top-secret document allegedly contained proof that the lawyers were victims of electronic eavesdropping without warrants. In short, top-secret documents that allegedly prove the federal government is spying on Americans are being withheld from court and the Obama administration supports this: “The government’s position remains that this case should be stayed,” according to Wired.
The amount of power the federal government has to spy on American citizens is disturbing. The exact scope of the current National Security Agency’s (NSA) warrantless surveillance program is unknown. However, it is known that the NSA was provided total, unmonitored access to all fiber-optic communications between the major telecom companies. This allows the agency to monitor phones, e-mail, Web browsing and private corporate network traffic. The NSA is not the only entity with access to this information.
Consider this, every time you send an e-mail, someone other than the intended recipient could easily read, modify or redirect it before it reaches its intended destination. Every time you make a phone call, the NSA, a company or a hacker could be listening. Every time you browse the Internet, post something on Facebook or log into your bank account, someone could be watching, tracking your every move. I would like to think no one is maliciously using the information, but unfortunately, identities are regularly stolen, bank accounts broken into and patriotic citizens are profiled as terrorists. I say this not to scare you, but to let you know that there is hope.
There are currently some safeguards in place. One of these safeguards is encrypting the connection used by a Web browser. Normally these secure connections are used when logging into a Web site or accessing sensitive information such as a bank account. Encrypting the connection assures only you can see the information on the page and no one else. The letters HTTPS at the beginning of a Web site’s URL indicate a secure connection, as opposed to an unencrypted connection which starts with HTTP. Without the HTTPS, anyone on the Internet can see the data you are entering. HTTPS offers some protection against prying eyes, but it does not do enough.
You may not be aware that when you send an e-mail, it is transmitted in plain text. We already know that Google reads our Gmail to better target advertisements, but have you considered that anyone, including the government, can read it? Fortunately, there are solutions to fix this. An open standard called OpenPGP provides military-grade encryption for e-mail. Using OpenPGP to encrypt your e-mail is as easy as installing the Thunderbird e-mail client and the Enigmail plug-in. Although you can only send encrypted e-mail to someone who has an OpenPGP public key, they are free and painless to generate. This key is created for you when configuring Enigmail. You would then share your public key so that people can send you encrypted mail. This extra work and the requirement for shared public keys create a fairly high barrier of entry. Without widespread adoption, encrypted mail will not catch on.
Americans need to focus on preserving their privacy. A friend from Germany was telling me that his professors do not accept e-mails from students unless it has been encrypted via OpenPGP. Moreover, each student’s OpenPGP key has been assigned to him or her after having their identity verified by a third party. This way every professor knows that a given e-mail is coming from the student who sent it and the contents of the e-mail are unmodified.
Our data can be safe from Uncle Sam if a few precautionary steps are taken. The safest way to protect your information is to not send it. For the most part, if you do not say it over an electronic communication device, the government needs a warrant to see it. Second, be careful of what you say in unencrypted e-mails and on social networking site because once posted, it belongs to them. Last week, In-Q-Tel, the investment division of the CIA, purchased part of Visible Technologies, a software company that monitors social media.
Though it would be nice if the federal government stopped spying on us, we need not fear. The tools exist to protect our information from prying eyes. All that it takes is a mindset for our security and a few precautionary measures. Until these laws are rescinded, be careful what you say over the phone, encrypt your e-mail and watch what you post on social networking sites. Remember, Uncle Sam is watching.