The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
We may be nearing the anticipated and dreaded point where our government cares more about its perpetuation than in its original and limited charge. Nowhere is this more evident than in the actions of the National Security Agency which is and has and will continue to engage in wholesale, warrantless spying on citizens.
The bad news is that the courts, being part of government, have generally sided with the other branches of government and against the plain meaning of the Constitution and have declared this spying “lawful”. The bulk of the people also support this spying, having ever on their lips the cry But what about the children!
Any state with a government strong enough to vote itself more powers will eventually turn tyrannical. It will call its tyranny benevolence: our Big Brother. The innocent don’t fret because they feel that they have nothing to fear, nothing to hide. But they forget that in a tyranny everybody is guilty.
The government has infinite resources compared to the citizen; nevertheless, there are some things the citizen can do to slow (probably not stop) the growth of Leviathan. One of these is frustrating the NSA. Here is how.
I don’t assume much knowledge on the part of readers. This is only a rough guide. After people comment, I’ll expand the list. A communication means any electronic method of information transfer, such as emails, phone calls, chat, text messages and the like.
Code is not cipher
If I tell you “The duck backed the third horse” and you understand that to mean “I’ll be over for a beer at six”, then we have communicated in code. If instead I use some system to transform the same message into a string of characters like “FJI88PODJH…” and you use the same system to turn them back into English, then we are speaking in cipher.
Most of your emails and other communications are encrypted, which means you’re talking in cipher. For example, look for an “https” on the address bar of the web email service you use; the “s” at the end means secure. Not that secure, though. The systems that encrypt your communications are not always sophisticated and the NSA can break them; i.e. the NSA can and does read emails and listens to phone calls. They are also building ever-sophisticated computers to do this spying more efficiently.
Most ciphers can be broken, but many codes cannot. Codes confuse and obfuscate. For example, if I were to put in a Gmail the code “Eagle 27”, the NSA will be able to break the cipher and read it but it will not understand what I meant—unless I were silly enough to put in another communication (email or phone) what “Eagle 27” meant. Obviously, never do this.
What can you do? Start by putting nonsensical code into your communications. End emails and calls with phrases like “Dogpatch running on the water” etc. The NSA will never know this code is nonsense. More importantly, the statistical algorithms which necessarily must sift through the billions of daily communications will not know what to do. This adds only a small annoyance to the government’s burden, but every little bit helps. If you really have something secret to communicate and even if you’re using cipher, do as much as possible in code. Best to use code which mimics typical spam keywords.
There is one and only one method of encryption that the NSA cannot break. This is the “one-time pad”. In essence, each bit or character in a communication is separately encrypted. This code is mathematically impossible to crack, even with quantum computers. So why doesn’t everybody use one-time pads? Two difficulties.
The biggest is “key sharing”, i.e. the swapping of information that allows the encryption and decryption of messages. In one-time pads, the keys must be shared in person. They cannot go out over communication channels. If they do, then the NSA will know what the keys are and be able to decrypt your communications. Thus before you and I can communicate, we must first meet. And after we meet, after we communicate, the key must be eradicated from all memory forever, which is not always easy to do with many computer storage systems. These are burdens with infinite return, however.
The second is in “key generation.” The key must be truly “random”, which is to say unpredictable. This is certainly possible, such as in quantum mechanical systems, but it’s (as they say) not as easy as it looks. If there is any, even the merest scrap, of regularity in the key then the jig is up. Laptops or phones used to generate keys probably won’t work.
A third, really now trivial difficulty given the size and speed of computation, is in key reuse. If the key is ever reused, NSA can break the cipher.
What can you do? I’m trying to get my number two son interested in developing a system like this for smart-phone emails, but he thinks his old man is nuts. However, I believe I’ve heard of others who market one-time pads. Use them.
SIGINT is signals intelligence. This is the “meta-information” you’ve heard about. With phone calls, this is where the NSA collects who you called, how long the call lasted, where you were and where the person you called was when the call was made, what day and time you made the call, etc. And when the NSA adds who else you called with who else the person you called has called and so on, the NSA has a fairly complete picture of who you are and what you are up to even without listening in on the calls.
However, it’s worse than just this. Your cell phone tracks wherever you go and when you go there. The government thus knows what you’re up to even if you don’t make a call. In some cases it can do this even when the cell phone is “off.” The same SIGINT goes for emails and other communications, such as purchases and searches on the Internet. It’s easy to tell a good story about you even without the actual content of your communications.
What can you do? Stop carrying your cell phone everywhere. If you’re really nervous, remove the SIM card when not using the device. Occasionally borrow somebody else’s phone or account to make calls or email, even if you have your phone or account handy. The idea is to add noise to the system. Change your anonymous email account if occasionally; or create junk ones. Use anonymizers when searching. Do not tell any social media site your birth date. Avoid calling or emailing when you can meet in person. Use landlines when possible, as long as these are not Internet lines. If you have an entity with which you regularly communicate, keep the channel between you continuously open (as on the Internet). The NSA will only with great difficulty pinpoint at which times actual content is being passed.
In our case, this means fooling the NSA into thinking a communication has taken place when it really hasn’t. Send emails to or call random people. Send emails and texts with gibberish in them, characters which resemble encrypted texts. If everybody did this even just once a week, the additional burden on NSA would be immense.
Caution. NSA is intercepting hardware and installing their own buggery inside, so unless you’re homebrewing your own equipment you can’t be sure the government has defeated you before you’ve begun. If you can buy your equipment out of country, do so. Or buy mass produced equipment from retail outlets. Use “burner phones”. Again, meet whenever possible in person. The government can hack into your home wireless network, so use hardwires when yo can.
This goes by other names, but the idea is that even if you’re using the best encryption, talking in code, and have been careful in all other aspects, your electronic system can still let you down. For instance, every time you hit a key on your keyboard it sends a characteristic signal into the air which can be intercepted. The signals which “paint” the images on your screen are also “out there” in the air. And if you have your cell phone, it is child’s play for a hacker (like the NSA) to listen even when you’re not making calls. This has been used by the FBI, too, so it’s not only the NSA you have to watch out for. I believe this is also possible for your computer’s and television’s camera and microphone. Unplug and take the batteries out of any device when you can.
What can you do? I’ve read the Russians have in some cases returned to manual typewriters and personal couriers. The only way to intercept these messages is to (of course) physically intercept them. Especially crucial information should be handled in a similar manner.
Any spy worth his weight in water knows these tricks and many more. So why highlight them? If just ten percent of us were to implement them, then the government would be fighting an uphill battle in its war against its own people. It is our duty to make unconstitutional spying as difficult for the government as possible.
Update Robert Samuelson does not understand the difference between the voluntary surrendering of personal data and its illegal theft.