There is no question that we’re living in a surveillance state. The only question is, what are we willing to do about it?
Today, over 5,000 websites are joining in a protest called The Day We Fight Back. Participants are posting banners of support and encouraging people to contact their representatives in Congress to get behind the USA Freedom Act, legislation proposed by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). The bill would put curbs on the NSA's domestic surveillance practices, particularly on the use of the massive database of U.S. communications it has been building. (Incidentally, people are also being encouraged to fight against Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) FISA Improvements Act, which would make what the NSA has been doing legal in the future.)
But support from many of the major tech companies – Apple, Microsoft and others that vigorously collect data on users and have complained to the government about the surveillance – has been tepid. However, the Reform Government Surveillance coalition, which counts among its members the likes of Microsoft, Google and Twitter, has lately endorsed The Day We Fight Back's efforts.
Some advocates worry that people don't seem sufficiently upset about the government's unchecked surveillance. They point out, for example, that surveillance through implanted viruses ends up worsening security and making it easier for hackers to attack computer systems. Furthermore, as privacy erodes, so does personal security.
Far from protecting the liberties of Americans, it appears with each new revelation that the NSA is increasingly infringing upon their rights. (The government’s latest defense is that the surveillance is not so bad because the NSA isn't spying on all phone calls made in the U.S., just 30 percent of them.) The spying, which was initiated under the government's wartime powers, is now so egregious that even the Congress-backed Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board has determined that the NSA's U.S. phone surveillance violates the First and Fourth Amendments (the rights to free speech and against unreasonable search). In other words, the idea that such surveillance is necessary contradicts the whole idea of a free country.
In addition to supporting protests like today's online demonstration, there are ways for us to fight back as individuals – and you don't have to go off the grid to do it.
- Use anonymizing software such as Tor. It's a free, open-source Web surfing program that runs in the background and hides the sites you visit and your location. It accomplishes this by routing a connection through numerous nodes or hops. It can slow your Web surfing, but it's so effective that the NSA reportedly has given up – at least temporarily – on trying to break it.
- Use search engines that promise not to collect data on you that can be passed along to the government. DuckDuckGo is the largest of such sites, and its search results are as good as anything you'll get from engines that track you, such as Google, Bing and Yahoo.
- Secure your data by using encryption. Encrypting information on your computer's hard drive won’t make it impossible for anyone to gather information on you, but it will make it difficult. TrueCrypt is free and can be used to encrypt an entire hard drive. For individual files, there's AxCrypt, which lets you encrypt and password-protect files with a click. It can also be used to send password-protected documents.
- Finally, avoid some of the most obvious tracking and spying methods by using a virtual private network (VPN). By connecting to the Web with a VPN you can essentially hide your IP address, the number that government agencies and others use to trace your online activities. It's the same sort of connection many businesses use to keep out hackers. There are VPN services, such as proXPN, that can be used for free, and subscription-based services, such as Private WiFi, that start at $9.99 a month.
As for all those phone calls that the NSA is collecting data on, there's not a lot you can do about it aside from taking extreme measures like using temporary, so-called burner phones or an app like Burner that provides temporary phone numbers that you "burn" once you're done.
Of course, in the surveillance state, organizations like the NSA will continually try to break these privacy tools. And new tools will no doubt be created. In the meantime, you can check out The Day We Fight Back protests, and call your local representative.
John R. Quain is a personal tech columnist for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @jqontech or find more tech coverage at J-Q.com.