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For most of us, the thought of the government spying on us conjures up images of a futuristic, Orwellian society where Big Brother and the Thought Police seek out and squash dissenting opinions and thoughts. It is safe to say we have not reached this level, yet, but under the guise of “national defense,” the government has slowly expanded its reach into the daily lives of everyday citizens, collecting information and doing who knows what with it, especially that which is transmitted over the internet. The Snowden leaks proved this, and although it’s been over four years since the massive citizen surveillance program by the NSA was revealed, the threat is still very much alive today.
While those in Washington may be struggling to recall what happens day-to-day, never mind year-to-year, it is important citizens recognize this is still going on and take the necessary steps to prevent it from happening.
Skeptics may scoff at this call to prevent government spying, enlisting the “I have nothing to hide” argument, but there is a larger ideological issue at stake here. Governments should be afraid of their people, not the other way around, and a recent study from the University of California Berkeley indicates people’s online search behavior changes dramatically when they know they are being watched. This makes protecting yourself against government spying less of an issue of personal privacy and more of a demonstration against an overreaching government that is on course to threaten one of the fundamental freedoms of any democracy, which is of course freedom of speech. Here are some things you can be doing right now to both protect yourself and send a message to lawmakers that enough is enough:
Know the Threat
As with any attempt to protect against a threat, the first step is to understand what we are up against. While the government is the ideological “enemy” in this case, it is important to know they are only one part of the equation. Large corporations, specifically Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, etc. (although the list is much longer), are tracking countless amounts of data about what you do, like and buy, as well as where you go (through the use of location services).
This data is supposedly encrypted, meaning no one can access it, but we should be wary about this. For example, the PRISM program is a government mandate that allows surveillance agencies to intercept communications when one end of the communication is believed to come from abroad, even if one of the parties involved is in the U.S. or is a U.S. citizen. There is a lot of gray area here. The government does not have a very large burden of proof to enlist these powers, and they can do so without the knowledge of anyone involved.
Up until now, though, most of the aforementioned companies have come out in favor of user protection. Apple famously refused to unlock an iPhone for the FBI on the grounds that it was a violation of civil liberties and would be setting a dangerous precedent for government intervention moving forward. This caused some backlash against the company and even incited a small boycott since the data was needed for the investigation of a one of the San Bernadino shooters, but advocates of personal privacy should applaud this bold defiance of government overreach. It is not clear how long this will last, however. The current administration seems prepared to expand the surveillance capabilities of different agencies. While data may be safe now, it might not be in the future. As such, it is important to take steps now to secure what we can. We must continue to stand up against unnecessary government prying. It will be important to lobby lawmakers moving forward to help maintain this distance between citizens and government.
Encrypt Your Communications
One thing you can be doing right now is to make sure you are using end-to-end encryption on your communications platforms. Apple iMessaging and WhatsApp encrypt data by default, but they do collect metadata, so you are still not completely out of the government’s watchful eye. Apps such as Signal Private Messenger go a step further in that they collect virtually no data in addition to encrypting all messages; this is the App recommended by Snowden himself.
Another smart move would be to install a “Pretty Good Privacy” (PGP) protocol on your browser to encrypt emails. Also, if you use Dropbox or Google Drive to save and share documents, consider switching to SpiderOak or at least using TrueCrypt to protect your documents. These are small steps, but they will go a long way in helping keep your information and communications private and away from the government’s watchful eye.
Limit Smart Devices
As the fifth generation of smart devices rolls out, we are going to start seeing virtually everything connected to the internet, from televisions (smart TVs already exist) to refrigerators, closets and medicine cabinets. The convenience these devices offer might tempt you to buy them, but if you are concerned about privacy and government surveillance, simply avoid them.
Accept that some devices simply do not belong on the internet. The more you connect yourself, the more data will be out there for others to read and the more vulnerable you will be. We all need the internet, but let’s limit it to what we actually need and not what companies want us to think we need.
One of the easiest ways you are being tracked and potentially spied upon is through your internet browsing history. Your home network has a unique IP address and the devices you use outside your home have similar tools of identification to be able to monitor your activity. If the government wanted to look into your private life, all they would need to do would be to look up the activity associated with these identifiers. However, you can easily get around this. By installing a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or proxy on your home computer and any other devices you have, you can reroute your activity through another server, effectively masking your identity and making you invisible online. This will render any efforts to track you essentially useless.
These are some simple, straightforward ways to begin protecting yourself and to keep the government from spying on you. While it is virtually impossible to prevent the collection of metadata and the government currently has the upper hand and could theoretically force its way into your life, taking these steps now is crucial to the fight for personal privacy and against needless government surveillance. In an era where protecting freedom of speech and other vital civil liberties is becoming more important by the day, taking action now is the best way to preserve democracy in the future.
What do you think about government surveillance? Has it gotten out of hand, or is it not as big of a deal as people make it out to be? What do you do to protect yourself online? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
Copyright 2017 Sandra O’Hare
Sandra O’Hare is an alternative news writer who focuses on questioning government authority. She thinks Edward Snowden should be considered a patriot and not a criminal and she works to raise awareness about what she sees as rampant government involvement in citizen life.