More information is released almost daily on the extent of the Prism program. Internet giants such as Google are alleged to have been working secretly with the NSA to pass personally identifiable information about online behavior to the government. As people become more aware of the vast quantities of information that large companies such as Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have compiled, they have increasingly turned to online services that help to keep their behavior private.
Some provide a ‘zero-knowledge’ service, where they don’t store any personally identifiable information about the user. DuckDuckGo, for instance, is a search engine that delivers results based on your present search, instead of a tailored message that Google or Bing would deliver. While it may take a little longer to find what you are looking for with DuckDuckGo, it does so with the promise of not sharing your searches with the NSA. Since June, DuckDuckGo’s userbase has doubled, showing an intense interest in privacy.
SpiderOak provides a similar service for cloud storage. It stores files without reading them and keeps the files encrypted so they can only be read by the user who uploaded them. It is available to be used by any computer with any operating system and will store files of any size or type. Not keeping personally identifiable information does have a downside, however. Without personal information SpiderOak is not able to retrieve lost passwords- and therefore a user will lose their data if they lose their password.
For a privacy service, Tor has an interesting background. It was originally designed by the US Navy to encode top secret communications. Today, it is used by the general public to enhance their anonymity online. To do this, Tor bounces web traffic across three different computers before delivering it to your computer, making tracking searches almost impossible. Tor has had 36 million downloads in the last year alone, and has over a half million users on a daily basis.
For an alternative to chat programs that freely trade your information, Cryptocat encrypts messages sent over the internet, allowing two users to communicate without the fear of outsiders listening in. It functions as a browser extension that opens a password protected chatroom between two or more users. Like many other privacy applications, it is completely open source.
The desire for privacy extends even further with the development of cryptocurrencies such as BitCoin. BitCoin operates much like any other currency such as the Euro or the Dollar, except that it is not backed by a government. Instead, it relied on peer-to-peer proof of work statements that verify the authenticity of the coin. The electronic currency is becoming accepted at an increasing number of locations both online and in brick-and-mortar locations. The currency is still young, however, and is quite volatile in price. After the news of Prism first broke, BitCoin quickly jumped to an all-time high.
Unfortunately, none of these tools can completely stop government surveillance. The only solution, according to Nadim Kobeissi, the creator of Cryptocat “is to get an honest political discussion going on to limit or get rid of surveillance tactics.” Until that time, people are on their own to protect their privacy online.
Derek is currently blogging for a New Jersey IT lawyer.