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Observations

Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Is It Possible to Keep Electronic Secrets?

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Cellphone lit upUnless you live under a rock, you've heard of PRISM, a vast digital surveillance program run by the National Security Agency that was recently revealed by a whistleblower. The NSA, part of the federal government, reportedly works in conjunction with corporations such as Google, Microsoft and Apple to share users’ information with federal authorities.

But here's the question: Can you actually keep your personal information private?

The revelations about PRISM shake the foundation of privacy that is often guaranteed on sites such as Facebook and Google. There are a number of ways, however, to protect your personal information. Here’s a look at publicly available tools for doing so, and the pros and cons of each.

 

The Tor Project

Tor is security software that is designed to protect both the sender and receiver of information and is available in a number of free mediums, from Internet browsers to Android plugins. By bouncing data all around the world through a network of proxies, Tor makes it impossible for someone to snoop on your Internet activity—or so it claims.

Pros: It’s free. Plus, it works with a variety of devices for a number of applications. The Tor web site claims that activists, media and law enforcement use the software. In cases where surveillance agencies don’t have access to the best technology, Tor may be an excellent choice.

Cons: Tor was originally developed by the U.S. Naval Laboratory as a way to protect government communications. Logic suggests that the U.S. government has deciphered, defeated and deserted this program—why else would they let their secret communications medium fall into the hands of the public?

 

Encrypted communications

Thanks to the ever-decreasing cost of processing power, encryption software previously available only to governments is now offered to ordinary citizens, often for free. With the help of complex mathematical algorithms, chat programs such as Cryptocat and phone apps such as RedPhone turn your signals into a code unreadable by anyone except the intended recipient.

Pros: Intercepting an encrypted communication is easy; deciphering it is the hard part. Doing so could take weeks, given the complexity of the algorithm used.

Cons: The best encryption programs require both the sender and the receiver to have the same software, which could be problematic. Still, if a government agency wanted to read your encrypted messages, they could. After all, they have the best encryption programs in the world.

 

‘Burner’ phones

Take it from the drug dealers and crime syndicates: prepaid cellphones known as “burners,” which can be bought with cash and disposed without a second thought, have no connection to the buyer’s identity.

Pros: Somebody with the burner phone’s number can trace the call, but they’ll never be able to confirm your identity. Because the phones and SIM cards can be bought with cash, no identification is linked to the caller. Plus, they’re inexpensive and can be bought all over the world.

Cons: For guaranteed security, the burner phone should only be used once. This can get expensive over time. Plus, the burner phone number can appear on phone records. The only truly anonymous call is between people using two burner phones.

 

My final judgment in digital privacy is this: nothing is foolproof. Given the known (and potentially unknown) resources of surveillance agencies around the world, it’s quite difficult to stay completely private. Any information you’ve loaded to a server that you don’t own, such as a Facebook post or an Instagram photo, is probably impossible for you to protect.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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