Does encryption really shield you from government's prying eyes?

Encrypting data may not guard against surveillance, some experts say, while others argue in favor of taking steps to protect privacy

By Zach Miners, IDG News Service |  Internet

"I can't tell you what encryption methods the government can defeat," he said. "I can tell you it's as good, if not better, than the best stuff in the world."

But even if the government can't crack the codes just yet, there is still the anonymity problem of the government seeing who sent what to whom.

And there's still a whole other layer of privacy concerns related to what Moglen calls "autonomy," which deals with how people change their behavior or self-censor what they say online because they're fearful of who is listening.

Experts agree that the aforementioned services and software generally work well as a guard against more incidental eavesdropping or keeping less tenacious hackers out of Internet communications in open Wi-Fi environments like coffee shops.

In the computer security world, "who exactly we are trying to protect ourselves against is one of the key questions," said EFF's Schoen. "Some are easier to protect against than others."

But are Internet users really fearful of snooping? Or have events like 9/11, and high-profile laws like the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which is at the heart of the alleged Prism program, made people too cynical to care?

Some do seem to live and die by encryption. Here's what Michael Goldstein, a computer science student at the University of Texas at Austin, does: He chats on Facebook with the open source Jitsi communicator. He chats with Cryptocat. He uses the PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) software for encrypting certain emails. His hard drive is encrypted with TrueCrypt. He's a fan of Tor, which is designed to keep people's anonymity intact, for accessing the Internet. He also likes Mega for cloud storage. There's RetroShare for encrypted chat, email, forums and other social networking with "certain friends." TextSecure too.

"Whenever possible, I encrypt my communication," he said. Clearly.

And let's not forget Bitcoins, a digital currency designed to allow decentralized and anonymous payments, which Goldstein also uses.

"To me, and many people of a more libertarian persuasion, recent news has been more of a validation of prior beliefs than a shocking revelation," he said.

"This is not a big shock. It's an open secret in my business," said John Kindervag, an analyst with Forrester.

Some tech entrepreneurs agreed.

Prism "is an important reminder that what we share online and communicate to others via technology can, and sometimes will, be seen by people that we didn't intend to see it," said Justin Johnson, co-founder at Late Labs, a crowdcoding startup based in San Francisco.

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