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In an Age of Cyber Surveillance, Can You Protect Your Privacy?

16 Aug 2013 | Posted Under Internet
Like him or loathe him, Edward Snowden let the cat out of the bag when he revealed that the NSA was using digital surveillance including phone and internet monitoring of millions of Americans.  While some people label him a traitor, others including Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) call him a whistleblower. The Michigan Republican himself admitted that were it not for Snowden’s revelations, Congress as well as the public was in the dark as to the breadth and scope of the NSA’s nefarious activities.

“Without his doing what he did, members of Congress would not have really known about [those 
programs],” Amash said. “Members of Congress were not really aware on the whole about what these programs were being used for and the extent to which they were being used. Members of the intelligence committee were told, but rank-and-file members really didn’t have the information.”

While this revelation comes as something of a surprise to the public at large, what is even more shocking is the fact that the NSA isn’t the only government agency known to be digging up dirt on Americans.  A recent newsfeed has revealed that a DEA surveillance unit known as the Special Operations Division has been passing information gleaned from its own wiretaps, informants and metadata to the FBI and Homeland Security, among others.  Like the NSA, the DEA has been cutting corners by illegally sharing information that is has nothing to do with potential terrorist threats.

In a recent article by Reuters entitled, “SecretiveDEA Surveillance Unit Makes NSA Look Like Happy 
Hour,”  investigative Journalists John Shiffman and Kristina Cooke discovered that the DEA blatantly instructed other agencies to cover up where they received their information.

One federal agent from a different agency who worked with the Special Operations Division told Reuters, "You'd be told only, ‘Be at a certain truck stop at a certain time and look for a certain vehicle.' And so we'd alert the state police to find an excuse to stop that vehicle, and then have a drug dog search it." 

The question that every American should be asking is not “What other agencies are busy eroding our freedom?”  What they really should be asking is, “Who is watching the watchers.”  It certainly isn’t Congress or the White House.  Just as important if not more so should be the proviso, “If the government isn’t going to protect my privacy, what can I do about it?”

This is a question that has a number of possible solutions.  In the first place, don’t make it so darned easy for every peeping G-Man to glean your personal information.  Below are several measures that every citizen can employ with ease.

      1.      Open a Private Session in Chrome or Firefox – If you are logged into Google literally every keystroke is 
      monitored and stored by Google.  Want to give Google the shake?  Simply click on the Customize and Control button at the far right on Chrome that looks like three diminutive orange bars stacked one atop the other.  The third option from the top reads, “New incognito window.”  By clicking on this, or by hitting Control+Shift+N, Chrome will pop up a new tab, along with the following:

You've gone incognito. Pages you view in this window won't appear in your browser history or search history, and they won't leave other traces, like cookies, on your computer after you close all open incognito windows. Any files you download or bookmarks you create will be preserved, however.

Going incognito doesn't affect the behavior of other people, servers, or software. Be wary of:
  • Websites that collect or share information about you
  • Internet service providers or employers that track the pages you visit
  • Malicious software that tracks your keystrokes in exchange for free smileys
  • Surveillance by secret agents
  • People standing behind you
Learn more about incognito browsing.
Because Google Chrome does not control how extensions handle your personal data, all extensions have been disabled for incognito windows. You can reenable them individually in the extensions manager.

2.      On the same Customize and Control button a little further down is an option that is labeled “History.”  Hitting this option brings up all your latest web browsing along with a button that reads, “Clear Browsing Data.”  By hitting this button, you will also clear your download history, delete cookies along with other plug-in data and empty the cache.  You should do this on at least a weekly if not daily basis if you want to erase your online footprints and flush out any cookie-based adware.  Cookies by and of themselves are not malicious by nature.  They are merely text files that can be used to store and share information.

In a search of, a blog entitled, “Do Cookies Compromise Security?,” states that,
 If you have ever returned to a site and have seen your name mysteriously appear on the screen, it is because on a previous visit you gave your name to the site and it was stored in a cookie so that when you returned you would be greeted with a personal message. A good example of this is the way some online shopping sites will make recommendations to you based on previous purchases. The server keeps track of what you purchase and what items you search for and stores that information in cookies. Web sites will often use cookies to keep track of what ads it lets you see and how often you see ads.

Cookies do not act maliciously on computer systems. They are merely text files that can be deleted at any time - they are not plug ins nor are they programs. Cookies cannot be used to spread viruses and they cannot access your hard drive. This does not mean that cookies are not relevant to a user's privacy and anonymity on the Internet. Cookies cannot read your hard drive to find out information about you; however, any personal information that you give to a Web site, including credit card information, will most likely be stored in a cookie unless you have turned off the cookie feature in your browser. In only this way are cookies a threat to privacy. The cookie will only contain information that you freely provide to a Web site.

     3.      Antimalware Programs – No matter the platform or operating system all computers, including Smartphones are vulnerable to viruses and malware.  While malware is designed for a number of purposes, 
ad-aware_07 (Photo credit: b1ue5ky)
      including identity theft, corporate espionage, spamming, creating unwanted popup ads or other malicious designs, the best way to stop cyber thieves from robbing you blind is to stop them before they walk through the door.   This is what antimalware programs are all about.  While there are a number of highly touted antimalware creators out there, all of them share one vital trait: They are all designed to block malicious software from entering your system in the first place.  They also need to be updatable since malware continually evolves. If your antimalware package has expired and you have neither renewed nor updated it in more than a month, then you are leaving the door wide open to malware.  Worst of all is the fact that there a number of ways that your system can be breached, including the following:
How Malware Gets On Your Computer
Malware, spyware, and other junk software makes it onto your computer for a number of reasons:
·         You installed something you really shouldn’t have, from an untrustworthy source. Often these include screensavers, toolbars, or torrents that you didn’t scan for viruses.
·         You didn’t pay attention when installing a “reputable” application that bundles “optional” crapware.
·         You’ve already managed to get yourself infected, and the malware installs even more malware.
·         You aren’t using a quality Anti-Virus or Anti-Spyware application.
·         You’ve using Apps on your Smartphone or Tablet that’s are not protected with antivirus/malware software and you’re computer is being back door hacked through shared files.
·         You’re letting your kids run amuck on your computer system by not teaching them proper computer safe usage and what to avoid?

     4.      Encryption – While encryption software that is able to withstand NSA snooping is readily available, hardly anyone uses it.  Moreover, it’s nothing new.  Even as far back as 1995, the government knew that it was possible for the average citizen to add encryption software to any computer system. 

“The ability of just about everybody to encrypt their messages is rapidly outrunning our ability to decode them,” a U.S. intelligence official told U.S. News & World Report in 1995. By the end of the Clinton administration, the government conceded that the Internet had made it impossible to control the spread of strong cryptographic software. But more than a decade later, the cypherpunks seem to have lost the war. 

Better still, the same encryption algorithms that can keep prying government agencies at bay would certainly prove deterrent enough to thwart cyberthieves.  While they might be able to hack into your system, if they didn’t possess the decryption key al they would come away with was a bunch of nonsense.  With everyone clamoring for privacy, why hasn’t encryption come bundled into every computer, tablet and Smartphone on the planet?

One of the reasons that encryption systems have not received widespread use is due to the fact that anyone you wished to email or text would also need the decryption key in order to read your message.  Other wildly popular email and messaging systems would also be affected.

Take Gmail, for example. “If you wanted to prevent government snooping, you’d have to prevent Google’s servers from having a copy of the text of your messages,” Halderman says. “But that would make it much harder for Google to provide features like search over your messages.” Filtering spam also becomes difficult. And end-to-end encryption would also make it difficult for Google to make money on the service, since it couldn’t use the content of messages to target ads.
A similar point applies to Facebook. The company doesn’t just transmit information from one user to another. It automatically resizes users’ photos and allows them to “tag” themselves and their friends. Facebook filters the avalanche of posts generated by your friends to display the ones you are most likely to find the most interesting. And it indexes the information users post to make it searchable.

      5.      Use better usernames and passwords. This might seem like a small item but many usernames and passwords are easy to guess. Especially if you have hacking software to help you crack the code. Make your user name longer and unique. Also make sure your passwords are at least 10 characters long and include upper and lower case letters, at least one number and at least one special character. This type of password is many times more difficult to crack than the 8 digit all letter ones that most people use.

The bottom line when it comes to security, the American public needs to decide which is more important, privacy or convenience.  Because in this wired world of ours, you can’t have it both ways.

Carl Weiss is president of W Squared Media Group, a company that specializes in digital marketing.  You can hear Carl every Tuesday at 4 pm on Working the Web to Win.

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