The latest Snowden-supplied bombshell shook the technology world to its core on Thursday: The NSA can crack many of the encryption technologies in place today, using a mixture of backdoors baked into software at the government’s behest, a $250 million per year budget to encourage commercial software vendors to make its security “exploitable,” and sheer computer-cracking technological prowess.
To some extent, it’s not surprising to hear that the U.S. spy agency is doing spy agency stuff but, given the recent surveillance revelations and the fact that other countries likely have similar capabilities, the news is certainly worrying. To make matters worse, it came just a day after Pew reported that 90 percent of Internet users have taken steps to avoid surveillance in some way.
All is not lost, however. While the stunning reports failed to name exactly which companies and encryption technologies have been compromised by the NSA, you can minimize the chances that your encrypted communications will be cracked by the government—or anyone else. Read on.
Embrace open source
Now that we know that corporations—or at least individuals in corporations—have worked with the NSA to build backdoors into encryption technology, privacy buffs should give commercial encryption technology (such as Microsoft’s BitLocker) the hairy eye.
You’re better off using tools that employ open-source or public-domain encryption methods, as they need to work with every vendor’s software and, in the case of open-source encryption, can be scrutinized for potential security flaws.
With that in mind, here are some tools worth checking out:
- Truecrypt for encrypting sensitive files, folders, and entire drives on your PC.
- GPG, an open-source implementation of the OpenPGP protocol used to encrypt email communications. Be sure to read up on why standard-compliant email messages can never truly be secure, though.
- TAILS, a.k.a. The (Amnesic) Incognito Live System, a Linux distribution built with security and anonymity in mind. TAILS comes packed with numerous privacy and encryption tools baked in, including Tor, which allows you to browse the web (mostly) anonymously and access a Darknet of so-called “Hidden Services” that grant anonymity to both web servers and web browsers. Bruce Schneier—a longtime security guru who has actually read the documents detailing the NSA’s encryption-busting methods—recommends using Tor and Hidden Services to thwart NSA surveillance. TAILS is meant to be used as a live CD, which means you can boot it from a disc or USB drive, and your data is wiped when you power off your system.
- Off-the-record messaging, or OTR, a cryptographic protocol for encrypting and authenticating instant-messaging communications. The protocol uses AES and SHA-1 standards and comes baked into TAILS and is recommended by Schneier even in the wake of the NSA revelations. Here’s a list of IM software that supports OTR.
Proprietary encryption tools created overseas may—may—also be less likely to have installed NSA-friendly backdoors into their software. This morning, I received an email from Boxcryptor, the superb (and Germany-based) cloud-storage encryption tool, reassuring me that there is no way for the company to snoop on its customers, as it encrypts files using private RSA security keys stored only on users’ private PCs, then transmits the already-encrypted files using HTTPs.
Beyond encryption, most of the advice in PCWorld’s How to protect your PC from Prism surveillance still applies. Note, however, that the New York Times report on the NSA’s crypto-cracking abilities suggest that VPN technology and the ever-popular SSL web protocol have been two encryption methods particularly targeted by the government. (Schneier suggests using TLS and IPsec whenever possible on the web-communication front.)
Even so, using the tips in that article will make your browsing much more secure in general, not just the NSA or foreign governments.
Also check out PCWorld’s guide to encrypting (almost) everything, which is chock full of handy-dandy encryption tips, though many rely on proprietary—not open-source—technology. While closed-source solutions may not protect against The Man and his super-encryption-cracking eyes, they’ll help keep everyone else out of your business.