Don’t let NSA paranoia destroy your productivity

There's an awful lot of paranoia going around these days. But the biggest threats to your privacy don't come from the NSA or the FBI. They come from private companies building massive databases to track your movements. Here's a sensible set of strategies to minimize privacy risks.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

If your reaction to recent revelations about widespread surveillance by the National Security Agency has you feeling powerless and hopeless, you’re not alone.

But if your next reaction is to furiously start pulling the plug on everything that makes the modern Internet useful and that ties us together as a society, then it’s time for an intervention.

Look, let’s be clear: There are valid reasons to question the scope of government surveillance and to have a proper debate about oversight. If you’re an investigative reporter covering foreign relations, you should be extremely aware of security. If you’re a political activist in a country with a repressive regime, then God bless you and please be careful.

But if you’re an average citizen in a Western democracy considering cutting yourself off from connections to your fellow human beings, you need to stop and take a deep breath.

I’ve been biting my tongue over this stuff, but the creation of a new website called prism-break.org finally sent me over the edge. The domain name is brilliant, but the recommendations? Not so much.

Are you willing to throw away all your Windows PCs and Macs and iPads, install Linux on every piece of hardware that’s left, and do all your browsing through slow anonymous networks? Do you seriously plan to quit all social media completely and force your friends and family members to install personal certificates before they can read your email? Are you really going to switch your DNS to a distributed system based on Bitcoin?

Me neither.

So what’s the alternative? First of all, let’s define the problem. Your every movement on the Internet is being tracked, not just by the NSA and the FBI but by government agencies from other countries around the world and, much more importantly, by giant corporate entities. Those advertising giants, most of whose names you wouldn't recognize, are sucking up information about you from most of the websites you visit, including this one. They're stuffing those details into giant databases that they then correlate with your offline behavior (credit card transactions, for example) to profile you.

Unless you’re willing to move to a cabin in the Montana woods and type manifestos on an old Underwood typewriter by a kerosene lantern, you’re going to wind up in some of those databases. And did I mention that the NSA and the FBI have copies of those collections in their massive data centers?

So maybe we can take a clue from the NSA and practice the art of minimization. You can’t remove every trace of yourself from online databases, but you can minimize your digital footprint. And you can blur the picture of your digital identity that those databases create.

There are no silver bullets for online privacy. There are, however, tools you can use to make small but meaningful improvements in your online privacy. Here’s what I use:

For Web browsing, I have Abine’s free DoNotTrackMe add-on installed in every browser I use. It automatically blocks trackers (including those from Google and Facebook) but gives me the option to re-enable a third-party site if I need to. As a side benefit, it also makes web pages load faster.


For cloud-based storage of sensitive work files, I use a third-party provider that encrypts files both in transit and at rest. (Hint: It’s not SkyDrive, Dropbox, or Google Drive.) I use SkyDrive for personal files, pictures, and documents that don’t contain sensitive content.

On social media sites, I don’t share anything controversial or sensitive. If the NSA wants to paw through my vacation photos, or read my Facebook chats, they’ll probably nod off from sheer boredom.

Email encryption? Forget about it. Even privacy fanatics acknowledge the usability hassles are so high that it’s not worth it unless you’re exchanging state secrets with an investigative reporter. And if you’re doing that, you need to engage in some serious tradecraft.

Meanwhile, with all the time you spend not hassling with digital certificates and waiting for some Tor server in Iceland to process your search requests, maybe you can write a letter or make a phone call to your Congressional Representative or Senator. And convince your friends and family to do the same. In the long run, that will have far more impact than all of those paranoid strategies.

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