Thanks to NSA contractor Edward Snowden, leaked documents published last week revealed that the agency has captured the metadata -- numbers called, call duration, approximate geographical location -- for millions of U.S. phone subscribers. Under U.S. law, the agency is only allowed to spy on foreigners. But the system that's been revealed appears to capture data on everyone, then rely on search algorithms to prevent information being retrieved on anyone who seems to be a U.S. citizen.
But what if you object to the blanket capture of U.S. cell subscribers' metadata information, or simply don't trust the NSA? Is it possible to avoid having information captured as part of the phone-tapping program, or via the surveillance program known as Prism that captures audio, email and video communications made by using such well-known services as Gmail, Facebook, Hotmail, Skype and Yahoo?
Earlier this week, The Washington Post detailed five strategies for preventing communications from being intercepted, including browsing using Tor and using Silent Circle to make phone calls. To what extent will these approaches easily secure your communications, and what other possibilities are available?
[ Cell phone calls are just one way U.S. citizens are monitored. Read What's Next In Video Surveillance. ]
In fact, many of the approaches trade increased information security for decreased usability. Then again, for some people, the tradeoff might be worth it. Here's what's available:
1. Tor, For Anonymous Browsing.
Using the Tor anonymous network helps prevent your traffic from being intercepted, thus foiling anyone who's attempting to identify which websites you're visiting, or people with whom you're communicating. In fact, Snowden, a former CIA employee and NSA contractor, was photographed with a Tor sticker.
Tor, which is free to use, uses an encrypted network to route your browsing. Using it for anonymous browsing is as easy as downloading the Tor Browser Bundle, which is a version of Firefox for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. But that encrypted, anonymous network comes at a price: slower browsing.
Furthermore, Tor isn't foolproof. The 2011 attacks against Dutch certificate authority DigiNotar, for example, resulted in the creation of fraudulent digital certificates for Facebook, Google, Skype, as well as Tor, apparently for the purpose of spying on Iranian Internet users. Likewise, researchers occasionally identify vulnerabilities in the service that can be exploited to identify users.
2. An OTR App, For Encrypted Chat.
Snowden communicated with Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who published some of the documents he leaked, using an unnamed OTR -- for "off the record" -- chat messaging program or plug-in.
For many people who want anonymous communications, the ease of using OTR applications, which enable chat sessions to be encrypted between two people using compatible clients or plug-ins for their chat service, makes it a natural choice. Furthermore, numerous free clients exist, including Cryptocat, Adium for Mac OS X and IM+ for Android and iPhone.