Snowden. PRISM. XKeyscore. It seems that you can’t turn around these days without reading another story about government surveillance.
Edward Snowden is the former defense contractor who blew the whistle on PRISM, the National Security Agency’s secret electronic surveillance data mining program. XKeyscore is PRISM’s backbone, the software that collects the data, including emails and social media conversations.
Online and mobile privacy and security are issues of great concern in the technology industry. Yet, ordinary citizens seem less indignant about internet privacy. While individuals and businesses may have varying levels of tolerance for government snooping, most of us would at least like the option of mobile and online privacy. Unfortunately, this isn’t an option that we currently have in any clear, easy-to-use format.
So what can you do if you want to keep your Web browsing, emails and social media conversations private? Not much, currently. Unless you’re prepared to drop all operating systems; Web browsers; and search, email and social networking services from Apple, Google, Microsoft, etc.
If you want to keep your conversations private, you’ll need to learn how to live without “Googling it,” Gmail, Dropbox, Google Docs, Skyping, Facebook friends and Google Maps.
That’s not to say that there are not alternatives, like GNU Linux, Firefox and Tor. Prism-Break.org is a website that lists available free services that can help you encrypt your communications and steer you away from proprietary services.
The main problem with some of these alternatives is their lack of usability for the general public. For example, open-source operating systems such as GNU Linux can be difficult to install. And sending an encrypted email to your grandmother who can’t decrypt it doesn’t help anyone.
If as a society we don’t start fighting government snooping laws, they are only going to become more restrictive. For example, recently, the Obama administration pushed to make it a felony to stream copyrighted material over the internet, which was a key part of the tabled Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) of last year. SOPA targeted user-generated content sites like Tumblr and YouTube and internet startups in the social and online search space.
Online and mobile surveillance is also an awareness issue. Do you know how your government is using technology to track your calls, emails, online conversations? When it comes to mobile, do you know what happens to the data you willingly offer up to use Angry Birds or the Instagram apps? We need to stay educated on these issues of privacy.
This post also appeared in The Tennessean, where Concept Technology has a bi-weekly feature in the Business section.