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Protecting Yourself from Spies September 7, 2013

Posted by Andre Vellino in Ethics, Human Rights, Information.


I once worked for a company that makes the kind of software that the NSA and CSIS appear to be using to monitor email and internet metadata (see the Guardian for a quick survey of the metadata that exists in different digital media).

I might add that I think there is nothing morally wrong with the surveillance technology itself – indeed it can be used to protect privacy and prevent harm. It is more a question of whether our privacy rights are violated when the technology is used and whether those rights should be relinquished to the state for the greater good.

The recent revelation that the presumption of privacy even when engaging in encrypted transactions is erroneous adds fuel to my concern that people don’t make informed decisions about what information they disclose and that they don’t even try to protect their information even when it is quite easy to do. This post highlights some software solutions you can use to reduce the likelihood that your private information is monitored.

Web Browsing

Let’s start with web browsing. The amount of information that a web servers can glean from your web browser’s attempt to connect with it is quite voluminous. To see what a server can find out about your browser and computer, try this link:


Furthermore, the combination of these browser characteristics, while they may not provide personal identity information can still identify you uniquely.  Try this test from the Electronic Frontier Foundation:


When I try it, they assert that my browser information-collection, i.e. my browser “fingerprint” is unique among the 3M or so they have tested.

There is not much you can do to limit the uniqueness of your browser’s fingerprint other than having a generic computer and a generic browser configuration.  Using the TOR browser / network (see below) helps to reduce the uniqueness of your browser-fingerprint, but there are tradeoffs (response speed for one thing).


There was a time when I thought that HTTP-Secure (“https”) was a reliable way of ensuring that information between your browser and the end-point server (e.g. a Bank) could not be intercepted or tampered with. The revelation that the NSA is able to decrypt such communications reduces my confidence that this method is “secure” in any meaningful way, but at least it offers some degree of assurance that not just anybody and either read or tamper with such transactions.

If that level of confidence is sufficient for you, then you might consider adding the HTTPS Everywhere plugin (brought to you by the Electronic Freedom Foundation) to your browser.


This browser / encrypted network system describes itself as

…free software and an open network that helps you defend against a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security

In principle, the Onion Routing technology behind it offers the end-user a high degree of anonymity and untraceability. However, if anyone can break SSL, the next step is to break TOR.

File and file system encryption

If you want to protect computer files, or indeed a whole file system (e.g. in case your laptop is stolen or your USB key is lost) you should try TrueCrypt. It offers operating-system level, on-the fly encryption, file-level encryption and partition encryption.  Best of all, TrueCrypt is open source (so you can check for yourself, if you have the patience and know-how, that there are no backdoors for the NSA or CSIS).

Also, for Windows PCs (or Wine enabled Macs), AxCrypt is a pretty good and easy to use tool for encrypting files.


Securing email is a bit trickier. There is no meaningful way to encrypt e-mail metatdata. The very nature of e-mail addressing and store-and-forward protocols like SMTP require that metadata. Which, of course, is a fundamental design flaw with email.

However, if you want to protect the content of what you say from prying eyes, you can try Gnu Privacy Guard (GPG). Its precursor was PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) and Edward Snowden thinks it works.


It appears that most people think that their privacy is worth sacrificing in exchange for safety and protection by government.  This is short-sighted. A benevolent government in whose integrity you trust might do the right thing at any point in time, but the issue is a matter of principle. You should not relinquish your right to privacy to the state.

As Bruce Schneier wrote in The Guardian:

By subverting the internet at every level to make it a vast, multi-layered and robust surveillance platform, the NSA has undermined a fundamental social contract…..

We have a moral duty to [dismantle the surveillance state], and we have no time to lose.

In the meantime we can at least do better to protect ourselves.


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