A few years ago, it was revealed that the United States government, through the NSA, gathers information on all Americans and numerous other people across the globe. The storm has since passed.
However, the NSA still continues to monitor all US citizens and its allies, backed by the United States government and a huge section of Congress. It’s not just the NSA doing the spying, though. It’s common knowledge that the CIA spies on and hacks persons of interest.
Here at VPN Base, we strongly believe in the freedom of speech, be it online or offline. For this freedom to be upheld, it is imperative that you learn how the NSA and other intelligence agencies spy on people. Once you’ve gained a good understanding of how your privacy is violated, you can take steps to protect it.
How the NSA spies on you
The following are ways in which the NSA spies on people in the US and elsewhere, according to Edward Snowden’s revelations and investigations carried out by the media.
- Phone records
The Patriot Act gives the US government the right to gather “business records that are relevant to terrorist investigations.” These include records from all local and international phone calls made in the US. The details collected include the number dialed, the duration of the call, and the time of the call, among other details.
- Online data
The US government can and frequently does obtain information from various online services. Various global and highly reputable online services—including Apple, Google and Facebook—have all admitted to handing over their customers’ data to the NSA, thanks to the “PRISM” program. This data includes documents, messages and emails.
- Hacking devices
Tailored Access Operations is an NSA unit dedicated to hacking, and it has developed a wide range of hacking techniques that make it possible for the NSA to gain access to business’ IT systems and consumer electronic devices, when needed. When the NSA discovers a vulnerability in a widely used consumer device, it doesn’t fix it. Instead, it exploits the security hole.
In addition to seeking security vulnerabilities in popular devices and business IT systems, the NSA coerces many technology companies into deliberately creating those vulnerabilities in their products. Targeted products include encryption protocols, firewalls and networking switches. The NSA then uses these backdoors into the products when they see fit. Moreover, the agency also intercepts shipments of devices and plants monitoring tools in them.
- Monitoring Internet lines
All content is connected on the Internet through undersea fiber optic cables that carry vast amounts of data. The NSA has made deals with the intelligence agencies in some countries to tap these lines. In some countries, the NSA taps the lines on its own. It is even believed that the agency uses submarines to plant bugs on the undersea cables.
- Hacking foreign companies
The NSA has infiltrated the internal systems of major telecommunication companies in many countries, including Germany and Brazil, among others. The agency intercepts the data collected by these companies, weakens the companies’ security systems, and gathers information on all the calls and emails that it can.
- Monitoring payments
The NSA knows exactly what you buy and own because it has hacked or made agreements with major wire transfer facilities, payment gateways and credit card networks. This enables the agency to follow all your transactions.
Protecting yourself against surveillance by the NSA
Even though the NSA is a highly powerful entity, there are still some things you can do to make it harder for the agency to spy on you. To begin with, you need to develop a strong sense of privacy. That means you ought to be careful about what you share online, how you share it, and with whom you share it.
Below are 9 tips to improve your privacy and make it more difficult for the NSA and other intelligence agencies to spy on you.
- Use a VPN
When you run a VPN on a device, the VPN reroutes all of the device’s online traffic through an encrypted tunnel, making the connection secure. This means that anyone monitoring the network—be it your network admin, ISP, the NSA, or hackers—can’t see the content of your online traffic when they intercept it.
Furthermore, a VPN offers other important benefits such as allowing you to access Geo-blocked services (such as Netflix and BBC iPlayer) and helping you save money while shopping online. It does this by masking your IP address with that of the VPN servers, making it appear as if you’re accessing the online service from a location where the content is available or the price of products is cheaper.
- Log out
Failing to log out of your important online accounts such as social media or online bank accounts is equivalent to leaving your front door open whenever you leave home. It leaves these accounts open to access by unwanted persons and organizations, such as cybercriminals and intelligence agencies. Some people believe that simply closing the windows makes it impossible for an intruder to access their accounts. This is not true unless you had the account open in the browser’s private browsing mode, which is advisable especially when using public computers.
- Beware public networks/devices
Ideally, you should avoid accessing your social media accounts and other important online services while in public. Logging into these accounts using a public device or network allows others to gather your data and send it to third parties. Hackers can intercept your traffic and collect your login credentials or inject malware into your device. If you have to use a public network or device, make sure you use a VPN.
- Don’t share your personal details
It’s common for online services to demand for your personal information, such as your email address, in order for you to enter a draw for a content or to “unlock” certain perks, such as extra content. These freebies are not worth your information, especially when it will likely be used to aggressively send you targeted ads or be sold to third parties, who may use the information for nefarious purposes. If you really want the freebies, create a pseudonymous email address specifically for these purposes.
- Don’t share your location needlessly
People love to share their location, especially when they're at a great vacation spot such as their dream luxury resort. Sometimes you want to share with your friends the location of a nice restaurant you just discovered. While this may be fun, oversharing your location potentially opens you up to being stalked and robbed.
- Ignore suspicious emails, SMS and calls
Spam is common online. The best thing to do when you receive them is to ignore and delete them. Opening them and clicking suspicious links inside exposes you to cyberattacks. Resist the temptation to respond to spam emails to ask the sender to remove you from their risks. All this does is confirm that the email is active and they’ll likely send more emails. Furthermore, replying to spam may make your email provider think that the messages are in fact not spam and remove them from the spam list.
- Use strong, unique passwords
Make sure you use a strong and unique password for all your important online accounts, including social media and financial services. This limits the extent of the damage in case one of your account’s login details are stolen because they can’t be used to access any of your other accounts. Passwords managers, of which there are many, make it easy to create and remember the unique passwords of all your accounts. Use two-factor authentication, which adds another step to your login, making it impossible for someone to access your account even if they somehow stole your password.
- Manage your cookies
- Use the Tor browser
For added online privacy, download and install the Tor browser on your device and use it when undertaking online activities for which privacy is crucial. If you want to search for something and you don’t want your search to be logged, use Duckduckgo.com instead of Google. It also has a browser app for mobile devices. For maximum security and privacy, use the Tor browser together with a VPN.