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Being smart with your smartphone (and your other digital devices)

Being smart with your smartphone (and your other digital devices)

Parrish Miller
July 22, 2014

As the capabilities and capacities of our now ubiquitous smartphones continue to increase, so have the incentives for government agents—of both the local and the national variety—to seek access to their contents. In June, in a rare unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Riley v. California that police may not search the cell phones of suspects without first obtaining a warrant.

While this decision is a win for privacy, it does little to curtail the rampant spying and data mining that is being carried out by the NSA and other national and international government entities. There are essentially four ways in which government compromises your Fourth Amendment rights—including your digital privacy.

In short, your rights can be violated by local or state law enforcement and by national or international government entities. You may be targeted specifically or you may just be the victim of general spying and data collection. While the courts have appeared a bit more inclined recently to require warrants for actions directly targeting individuals, they have not shown similar interest in reining in the broad data collection that is becoming increasingly popular with local and national agencies.

This reality leaves us with a need not only for more pro-liberty congressional, legislative and legal action, but also for technological solutions to help individuals protect their privacy and data from the prying eyes of government. Some of these solutions are better than others and some raise additional legal questions which must be considered.

Encryption: While the topic of encryption may be a bit too broad for this venue, suffice it to say that just about any data can be encrypted and just about any encryption can be broken—with enough time and effort. The data on a mobile phone can often be encrypted using built-in functionality and third-party software allows the encryption of computers, external hard drives, flash drives, memory cards and other peripherals.

Encryption poses its own challenges, however. Encrypted content often takes longer to access and store, requires remembering passwords and can make intentionally sharing data more difficult. encrypting_cartoon There are also concerns that some encryption schemes may include backdoors that can be exploited by government agents. Additionally, there remains the dilemma that a court could conceivably issue an order demanding that you provide the government access to your encrypted data, although how far it would go to coerce such compliance remains an open question.

A note on encrypted email: While there are options available for encrypting email such as Hushmail or Enigmail, such strategies will always have an inherent obstacle in that the person receiving the encrypted email must be able to decrypt it in some manner. If both you and the receiver are willing to go through a few extra steps, though, it is possible.

Safer Browsing: There are numerous tools available to help keep your Internet browsing habits private, some of which are quite easy (and free) to use while others are significantly more complicated or costly. Your choice of web browser is one of the simplest with Mozilla's Firefox being the best of the common browsers. The "private browsing" mode (which can be enabled at all times or just used for certain windows) prevents the storing of cookies or history data and the "master password" option allows the browser to store your encrypted passwords for multiple websites, but prevents any of them from being accessed without entering a master password of your choosing. Merely closing the browser logs you out of everything and prevents anyone from accessing your login information.

Additional security in browsing is possible using add-ons such as Ghostery (to block tracking); Adblock Plus (to block adds, including those which can track you); and No-Script (to prevent click-jacking and other malicious activity).

A virtual private network (VPN) is another very valuable tool which can shield your web browsing not only from the government, but from your Internet service provider (ISP) as well. These are not typically free (although free ones do exist, they are quite slow and offer limited use), but they are available for just a few dollars per month. Personally, I use Private Internet Access as my VPN on my computers as well as my Android tablet and phone. If you do decide to use a VPN, the folks over at TorrentFreak did a very thorough comparison of just how anonymous these services really are.

Another option for anonymous browsing is the TOR browser which "protects you by bouncing your communications around a distributed network of relays run by volunteers all around the world." While this option is free, it is slower than most VPNs and can potentially expose you to surveillance because the last leg of the relay is unencrypted. While some analysts believe that a VPN is superior to TOR, others hold that in some instances, TOR may be the superior choice.

Smarter Searching: Instead of using Google or Bing that track, monitor and monetize every search you conduct, consider using StartPage, DuckDuckGo or PrivateLee, which offer similar functionality with enhanced security and privacy.

Go Old School: While encryption, VPNs, TOR and other security software can help to mask your online activity, the greatest dangers to most people's privacy are the things they intentionally do publicly. The photos you upload to Facebook that you tag your friends and location in are probably a greater threat than an unencrypted email, and using your GPS-enabled smartphone with Google Maps does more to expose your driving habits than does a traffic camera.

If (or when) you truly want privacy, the best solution is to stay off of the digital grid entirely. Turn off your phone and take out the battery. Don't leave your computer connected to the Internet. If these options are too extreme, at least refrain from doing or saying anything digitally that is so sensitive that exposure could destroy your life. Digital activity (especially online activity) carries with it inherent risks that can never be completely mitigated.

Although some might point to falling crime rates as an indicator that the world (or at least this country) is safer than ever, in another sense, it is the most dangerous that it has ever been. A growing reliance on increasingly sophisticated technology has made our lives, our habits—and indeed even our thoughts—susceptible to interception and evaluation by malicious entities intent on tracking every individual and every activity on the face of the planet. Such a notion would have been inconceivable in centuries past, but today it is the frightening reality.

Protecting our privacy in the face of this threat will require a concerted effort to enact laws forbidding governments from monitoring and spying on individuals, to repeal laws which run contrary to this purpose and to encourage courts to uphold the protections enshrined in the Fourth Amendment. Additionally, we must work to inspire talented entrepreneurs to come up with new and innovative ways to prevent governments and other entities from having the ability to monitor or record any of our activities—whether digital or otherwise.

"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."
— Benjamin Franklin

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