How to tell the NSA to go &*$! itself

Want to get the spooks off your tail? You'll have to ditch your digital footprint and start over. Here's a quick primer on how to do it.

Thanks to Edward James Snowden, now know a lot more about what little privacy we have left. We know, for example, that the NSA is tapping our phones, reading our email, tracking our Web history, sniffing our WiFi networks, and riffling through our bank accounts. It knows we’ve been searching for cat photos, Skyping strangers in exotic locales, buying Furbies on eBay, and ogling videos of pole dancers.

Or at least the NSA could know these things, if it chose to, at the click of a button. And if it did choose to, you probably wouldn’t know about it until a black bag was thrown over your head and you were tossed into some third-world hellhole next to Julian Assange and the Prisoner of Zenda.

A tad dramatic? Perhaps. But even to a privacy cynic, the news over the past two weeks about metadata sniffing, PRISM, and Boundless Informant has been profoundly unsettling.

So let’s say you want to get the NSA off your tail. You’ve already ditched your smartphone for a cheap burner you bought at a Scotchman store and you’re wearing dark glasses and a fake beard. You’ve gone so deeply undercover that strangers routinely mistake you for Joaquin Phoenix.

That’s great, but your work is just beginning. You also need to abandon your digital footprint and start over.

Fortunately, a site called PRISM Break has served up a long list of alternatives to traditional – and mostly likely tapped – digital services. Here’s a summary to going dark. I call it the FEBCOSS method, because, well, I needed an acronym and that’s the best one I could come up with.

Fahgeddabout Facebook. Or any of the other popular public social networks. If you must share your innermost thoughts and pictures of adorable kittens with the world, use a decentralized social network like Diaspora, Friendica, or Movim.

Encrypt your email. Whether you use a desktop email program or a Web-based one, your messages typically pass “in the clear” across network lines – making them easy pickins for an NSA data-sniffing program. To communicate in private you’ll need to encrypt your email end to end using a service like Enigmail, Kmail, or Mailvelope. The same goes for instant messaging; Cryptocat and Pidgin provide the privacy that AIM and Google Talk lack. The downside? Whomever you’re secretly communicating with typically has to use the same software or they can’t read it either.

Bury your browser. If you use IE, Chrome, or Safari, the NSA may know where you Web surfed last summer. The solution: an open source browser like Firefox or GNUzilla with TOR (The Onion Routing) enabled to mask your IP address from spying eyes.

Cut up your credit cards. We know from Snowden’s interviews the NSA hoovers up financial transactions along with your other digital records. Sorry, that pseudonymous Paypal account won’t protect you. It’s time to take that money out of the bank and put it into Bitcoin and other crypto currencies (or possibly stuff it inside your mattress).

Oust your operating system. According to a report by Bloomberg News, Microsoft shares information about vulnerabilities in its products with government spooks before it tells the rest of the world. This allows spies to a) patch their own systems, and b) exploit those holes in other systems (like yours or mine). We don’t know if Apple or Google do the same, but given everything else we know it would be surprising if they didn’t. To be safe you’ll need to switch to an open source OS like one of the many Linux variants, where security holes are announced -- and patched -- in public view.

Sack your search engine. Google and Microsoft receive thousands of requests each year from law enforcement (and its Big Brothers in Langley) for the stored data of its users, some of which no doubt include search histories. Anonymous search engines like DuckDuckGo or Ixquick don’t store histories, leaving the spooks nothing to pore over.

Scrap Skype. Think you can have a cozy convo over Skype without the feds listening in? Think again. Unless it’s encrypted, voice over IP connections are not much harder to bug than most landline phones. The solution is an encrypted voice/video chat app like Jitsi or Mumble.

Will it be easy? No it will not. In fact, doing even half of this stuff will prove pretty painful to most of us who are used to trading in our privacy for convenience. But it will give you a fighting chance against the shadow forces of spydom, the Men and Women in Black with unlimited budgets and insatiable appetites for data.

Unless, of course, just reading this post has already made you a marked man or woman. Then I’m afraid no one can help you.

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.

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