As we are all now painfully aware, Big Brother is watching. But while we may not be able to fully escape His gaze, we can put throw some sand in his eyes from time to time.
Yes, Virginia, it is possible to hide your online activities from the eyes of spies. And thanks to the $60 NinjaStik, it just got a lot easier.
NinjaStik is a privacy-enhanced Linux OS on a thumb drive. Plug it into your computer and you can surf the Web in near total anonymity. It will also let you encrypt files so that only you can see them and scramble your email so that the NSA can’t read it. It even comes with a Bitcoin purse so you can make digital payments anonymously, right under the noses of the banking Stasi.
NinjaStik uses a browser that automatically plugs into The Onion Router (Tor) network, which re-routes your Internet connection through an assortment of machines all over the world to mask your actual IP address. For example, when I logged into Facebook using Tor, it thought I was logging on from computers in England, Amsterdam, and Prague instead of my actual location. (Of course, logging into Facebook negates most of the privacy I might gain from Tor – duh.)
This is important, because your IP address is the key to unlocking a lot of other information about you. Every Web site you visit (including this one) can record your IP, as can any analytics or tracking software that gets downloaded along with it. Google and other search services can keep a record of everything you’ve searched for attached to your IP and retain it for anywhere from 9 months to two years. Your IP address can reveal your location in the world and the identity of your ISP. Law enforcement can then order your ISP to hand over the billing records for any IP addresses suspected in a criminal matter, and so can private organizations like the RIAA. And of course, we know that the FBI, NSA, and other three-letter spy orgs love IP address data more than they love their own mothers.
That’s why in many European countries IP addresses are considered personally identifiable information and given greater privacy protections (but not on this side of the Atlantic, sadly).
Use the NinjaStik to surf the Web, though, and all of that goes away.
Of course, you can download Tor yourself for free, use it to surf anonymously from inside Windows, and save yourself $60 to $130, depending on which version of NinjaStik you choose. But there are a few downsides to this. One is you have to be a bit geekier than most (though, frankly, using NinjaStik is also pretty geeky). Another is that it’s still possible for other apps on your computer to grab your IP address even while running Tor.
But the biggest reason is using Tor under Windows c a n b e p a i n f u l l y s l o w. Facebook pages take 30 to 45 seconds to load using Tor, versus about 5 to 10 seconds without it. Google searches take an eon. Running Tor on the NinjaStik is also slower than running without it, but not enough to be painful.
Now for the downside (you knew there would be one, right?). Using NinjaStik is nowhere near as convenient as surfing the Web normally. You’ll have to tell your computer to boot from the USB drive, and run everything off of Linux. Though you can access files stored on your computer’s hard drive, and even read documents and view images, you won’t be able to run any of your usual Windows or Mac software until you remove the drive and reboot. And you'll only gain the benefit of encrypted email if your recipients are also using PGP-based encryption software. In other words, you’ll need a pretty good reason to go dark.
I asked NinjaStik creator Jeremy Elliott why anyone would bother to go to this kind of trouble. His explanation:
I've had a lot of opportunity to explain to people that the NinjaStik is about choosing when you wish to be private. I don't believe that it is necessary to keep 100% of your online activity private - I have Gmail, Facebook, Twitter etc and use them every day, even when I'm not wearing my tinfoil hat. But I also think we should have the ability to be private when we want to.
One of my customers a few months back was preparing to divorce their spouse, who happened to be a computer specialist and a network admin. The customer wanted the NinjaStik to be sure that the soon to be ex was not spying or had not hacked their laptop to record everything.
You could use the NinjaStik for just about anything - even if it is just buying Christmas presents for your family without worrying that they will find the purchases on the family PC.
So for those times when you really don’t want your friendly national surveillance service (or that freak Carrie Mathison from “Homeland”) watching everything you do online, there’s NinjaStik. For everything else there’s, well, everything else.
I feel much safer already.
Got a question about social media or privacy? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.