How to shield your calls and internet activity from government surveillance #privacy

June 11, 2013
Protect yourself: Mobile and internet activity.Protect yourself: Mobile and internet activity. Photo: Michel O’Sullivan

If you have followed the startling revelations about the scope of the US government’s surveillance efforts, 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.

A new frontier of sweeping secret surveillance is not a conspiracy theory but a burgeoning reality.

First, instead of browsing the internet in a way that reveals your IP address, you can mask your identity by using an anonymising tool such as Tor or by connecting to the web using a Virtual Private Network, or VPN.

Additionally, you can avoid Google search by using an alternative such as 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 daunting 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. Organisations 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 such as Skype and G chat 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, such as 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 such as 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 (Android and iOS) for making encrypted calls or TextSecure for sending encrypted texts.

A new frontier of sweeping secret surveillance is not a conspiracy theory but a burgeoning reality. But 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.

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Online #censorship: How government should approach regulation of speech

2 Dec, 2012, 06.21AM IST,  ET

If the government’s answer to ‘bad’ online content is more censorship, more surveillance and more regulation, then they are doing it wrong.

If the government’s answer to ‘bad’ online content is more censorship, more surveillance and more regulation, then they are doing it wrong.
Why is there a constant brouhaha in India about online censorship? What must be done to address this?Of course, we must get the basics right — bad law has to be amended, read down by courts or repealed, and bad implementation of law should be addressed via reform and capacity building for the police. But most importantly those in power must understand how to approach the regulation of speech.To begin with, speech is regulated across the world. Even in the US — contrary to popular impression in India — speech is regulated both online and offline.

However, law is not the basis of most of this regulation. Speech is largely regulated by social norms. Different corners of our online and offline society have quite complex forms of self-regulation.

The harm caused by speech is often proportionate to the power of the person speaking — it maybe unacceptable for a politician or a filmstar to make an inflammatory remark but that very same utterance from an ordinary citizen may be totally fine.

To complicate matters, the very same speech by the very same person could be harmful or harmless based on context. A newspaper editor may share obscene jokes with friends in a bar, but may not take similar liberties in an editorial.

The legal scholar Alan Dershowitz tells us, “The best answer to bad speech is good speech.” More recently the quote has been amended, with “more speech” replacing “good speech”.

Censorship by the state has to be reserved for the rarest of rare circumstances. This is because censorship usually results in unintended consequences.

The “Streisand Effect”, named after the singer-actor Barbra Streisand, is one of these consequences wherein attempts to hide or censor information only result in wider circulation and greater publicity.

The Maharashtra police’s attempt to censor the voices of two women has resulted in their speech being broadcast across the nation on social and mainstream media. If the state had instead focused on producing good speech and more speech, nobody would have even heard of these women.

Circumventing Censorship

Peer-to-peer technologies on the internet mimic the topology of human networks and can also precipitate unintended consequences when subject to regulation. John Gilmore, a respected free software developer, puts it succinctly: “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

Most of the internet censorship in the US is due to IPR-enforcement activities. This is why Christopher Soghoian, a leading privacy activist, attributes the massive adoption of privacy-enhancing technologies such as proxies and VPNs (virtual private networks) by American consumers to the crackdown on online piracy.

n India, and even when the government has had legitimate reasons to regulate speech, there have been unintended consequences.During the exodus of people from the North-east, the five SMS per day restriction imposed by the government resulted in another exodus from SMS to alternative messaging platforms such as BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), WhatsApp and Twitter.In both cases the circumvention of censorship by the users has resulted in a worsening situation for law-enforcement organisations — VPNs and applications like WhatsApp are much more difficult to monitor and regulate.

Mixed Memes

Regulation of speech also cannot be confused with cyber war or security. Speech can occasionally have security implications but that cannot be the basis for enlightened regulation.

A cyber war expert may be tempted to think of censored content as weapons, but unlike weapons that usually remain lethal, content that can cause harm today may become completely harmless tomorrow. This is unlike a computer virus or malware. For example, during the exodus, the online edition of ET featured the complete list of 309 URLs that were in the four block orders issued by the government to ISPs.

However, this did not result in fresh harm, demonstrating the fallacy of cyber war analogies. A cyber security expert, on the other hand, may be tempted to implement a 360° blanket surveillance to regulate speech, but as Gilmore again puts it, “If you’re watching everybody, you’re watching nobody.”

In short, if your answer to bad speech is more censorship, more surveillance and more regulation, then as the internet meme goes, “You’re Doing It Wrong”.

(The writer is executive director, Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore)



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