Published May 20, 2013
Revelations that the Department of Justice has been secretly spying on Associated Press reporters has given rise to accusations of intimidation tactics and apparent attempts to stifle whistle-blowers and a free press. It should also ring alarm bells for anyone concerned about their own privacy and freedom.
The U.S. garners the No. 32 spot when it comes to press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders, and the latest snooping scandal raises the specter of the bad old days (circa 1972) when reporters resorted to ridiculous clandestine machinations to communicate with secret sources. During the Watergate investigation, Bob Woodward would move a flower pot on his balcony when he wanted to get in touch with Deep Throat.
The digital age has made it far trickier to thwart eavesdroppers, who may be sitting at a desk thousands of miles away. But it can still be done. There are plenty of software tools, for example, that journalists can use to protect sources without the need to rearrange the shrubbery. In fact, these are also excellent tools anyone can use to keep prying marketers and hackers out of their business.
TrueCrypt: Security begins at home, and what's on your hard drive can say a lot about you -- and about everyone you know and communicate with. Encrypting the data on your computer's drive won’t make it impossible (nothing is impossible), but it’ll be extremely difficult for anyone to uncover what's stored there. TrueCrypt is free and can be used to encrypt an entire hard drive or on a virtual disk to keep prying eyes out. For individual files, there's AxCrypt, which lets you encrypt and password-protected files with a click. It's great for sharing confidential documents, but you've also got to share the password.
Tor: Used by political activists and dissidents Tor is a free, open-source Web surfing program that runs in the background and hides your surfing habits and location. It accomplishes this by routing your connection through numerous nodes or hops, so it can also slow down your page views. On the other hand, it has proved adept at thwarting oppressive government officials. It has also been useful for criminals delivering viruses, so much so that some security programs automatically tag Tor traffic as malware.
VPN: One way the authorities (and hackers) trace things back to you is using your IP (Internet Protocol) address, which ISPs are often forced to render to authorities. That’s how law enforcement sometimes learns military generals have supposedly secret email accounts, which can they can then subpoena without their knowledge. To prevent such traces you can use a VPN, or virtual private network service, to hide your IP address. It's the same sort of connection used by many corporations to prevent security breaches using encrypted tunneling, but you can use it to route your connections through a remote server, often in a different country, and thus thwart trackers. Free VPN services include Private WiFi and proXPN.
Google Voice: One of the disruptive technologies Google has introduced -- but not enough people use -- is an online phone service based on technology it acquired when it bought Grand Central. Google Voice is intended to provide a single phone number that you can then use to route calls to any other number (up to five at a time). It's also great at filtering calls, and because it's free, you can get a new number for special sources and then close it down, making it difficult for authorities to eavesdrop or even figure out who called who.
Burner: Based on the concept of so-called burner phones (cheap, temporary cell phones that have no identifying account information and are later thrown away), the Burner app for Android and iPhones generates a temporary phone number you can give out instead of your real number. When you're done, you simply delete the number and it's gone. It's not free, however. Getting a number that lasts a week with 20 minutes of talk time, for example, costs $1.99. Is it foolproof? Probably not if the government is trying to track you, but it makes it darn difficult.
DeadDrop: Another tool that has been used in various guises by whistle-blowers is DeadDrop. It uses Tor and provides a place online where sources can anonymously post confidential documents and information for reporters (just like the physical dead drops of the spy-vs.-spy cold war). The New Yorker magazine recently publicly announced it would begin using the technology for its Strongbox service.
It should be noted that many of these techniques are used by terrorists and ordinary criminals today. Law enforcement will no doubt decry their use -- and continue to come up with ways to hack into these privacy tools.
When that happens, you may have to go back to the old flower pot trick.