Recently, the United States Congress renewed the warrantless wiretapping powers of the NSA in the FISA Amendments Act by a 73 to 23 vote. The law had been set to expire shortly, but it has been duly resurrected amidst a great deal of controversy and ill feelings on the subject in regards to how agents of the federal government should be permitted to pry into the private lives of its citizens without oversight.
In what now feels like an age-old curiosity of a discussion one side points gestures towards the need for oversight, for having the judicial branch of the government provide warrants before privacy is violated; whereas those in favor of the bill pull terrorists and national security out of their hats. Intelligence collection is an extremely important segment of tracking and stopping crime and terror-related events in the United States; but doing so secretly and without the oversight of the branch of the government set up for that oversight seems an obvious lead to corruption.
The technology exists to easily spy on Internet conversations and to an extent thwart that
In recent news, the idea that people might be spying on our Internet communications has become bright in the minds of the youth in Britain due to bans being placed on people being able to connect to The Pirate Bay. There’s the old adage, “the Internet sees censorship as damage and routes around it,” and as a result proxies began to emerge to permit people to access The Pirate Bay around the blocks. After the Pirate Party’s proxy was taken down via threat of legal action even more proxies outside the jurisdiction appeared.
In the United States, ISPs have initiated a program to spy on their own users to watch for copyright violations with a six-strikes program. This has spurred a similar move by youthful US customers to look to virtual private networks (VPNs) in order to protect themselves from their own ISPs spying on them, watching what they download or use BitTorrent.
And now, the privacy conundrum continues to boil in Congress over the NSA’s domestic spying program. For those curious about the origin of this program and how we’ve gone from the secret October 2001 authorization by President Bush until the 2012 move to keep it alive, the EFF has a very nicely built FAQ on the subject to read up on it.
Expectations that what we say on the phone or the Internet might get us “watched” are a mainstay of geek humor. However, that paranoia may just have been turned up a notch in the era of Big Data and the cloud, with datacenters capable of sifting through and storing petabytes of information. The technology is certainly here to enable wide-scale “listening” to private communications and even in recent days when NSA Whistleblower William Binney spoke about this to Russia Today.
The future of Internet privacy may require proactive moves by ordinary people
Many workaday individuals who own mobile devices, use Facebook to chat with friends, and Twitter don’t worry so much about the privacy from the government as much as from other people—and even then they still must face privacy blunders. Personal security when it comes to social media has been redefining the edges of what people find acceptable for the entire world to know about them; but sometimes communication just needs to be protected.
This is where people have started to look towards VPNs and software that cryptographically protects their communications. The reasons are obvious (1) what if I’m doing something that’s otherwise legal but my ISP is spying on me and thinks I’m doing something illegal and (2) what if I’m doing something sensitive and the NSA is constantly looking over my shoulder.
Youth who want to access the Pirate Bay in the UK after it was blocked and US citizens affected by potential six-strikes from ISPs are starting to look closer at technology good for obfuscating their activity online. People are indeed trying to pay more attention to the security features embedded in the apps they use on a daily basis and privacy snafus by companies are seen as public relations failures—but to date personal privacy is still not easy.
While there are numerous VPN services out there, it’s hard to tell which one is good or reputable and installing one can be somewhat difficult. Countries such as China have already seen a rise in VPN to get around their draconian censorship and speech rules and as a result have upgraded the Great Fireall of China to block it.
More people are beginning to see that they need to take a role in protecting their own privacy (even on the Internet in general) even if they don’t pay as much attention on social media.