Who's spying on you and what can you do about it?
Everyone knows the NSA is spying on us, but who else is snooping on our online activity? And is there anything we can do about it?
We average citizens are not alone in being spied on by our own government. The NSA is reported to have been spying on German chancellor Angela Merkel and her top advisors for a number of years and Julian Assange said they're intercepting 98% of all the communications in South America. So if the NSA is spying on our allies and pretty much an entire continent, on top of whatever data they're gathering on their own citizens.
But the US isn't the only country snooping on everyone. There are also the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) in New Zealand and the UK's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). These and the NSA sometimes work together as the Five Eyes Alliance.
They don't work on their own though. Tech companies are sometimes strong armed into providing information to the government spies. Yahoo executives are reported to have been threatened with jail time if they gave up any government secrets. In addition to forcing cooperation though, there are rumors that governments are spying on tech companies as well.
Why does that matter? Google ads have tracking cookies that ultimately give Google wi-fi passwords. Whether you're using an Android or an Apple phone, they both have location services that can track your movements and whereabouts. Apple stores your messages. Gmail knows your inbox. Dropbox knows what files you're sharing.
With so many sources with so much information about you, is there a way to keep everything private? There isn't. That is, outside of going completely off the grid and living in a log cabin in the mountains, there probably is not a way to stay 100% private. There are, however, things you can do to mitigate snoopage.
Keep in mind that a hacker, or any company, can likely overcome any roadblocks you throw at them. However, it takes time to overcome some protections and unless you're a high-profile or specific target, you're not likely to receive any extra effort by any hacker, company or spy agency. It's simply not worth the time (money) to try to get through any protections a random citizen has thrown up.
All that said, the best thing you can do it encrypt your data. Encryption scrambles the data you send. You can use the browser plugin HTTPS Everywhere to make sure the websites you visit are using HTTPS, which uses SSL encryption. The downside to it is that it blocks sites that don't have SSL certificates.
You could also use a Virtual Private Network, or VPN. A VPN keeps your browsing encrypted so it can't be intercepted by hackers or spies.
We listed a number of services that track your information, like iMessages, Gmail and Dropbox. There are secure versions of just about every app or software. They may not be as well-known or popular, but there are plenty of apps out there that will keep your information safe.
If you do want to go so far as to unplug, you can keep your sensitive information on a computer that you never connect to the internet. If you do that, make sure to remove any networking hardware. You could also use Tails, an operating system that boots up off a USB stick and forgets everything you've done after you unplug it.
There's also Tor, which encrypts your internet browsing. It's infamous for being a path to the dark web, where internet black markets live.
As previously mentioned, there is no perfect and totally easy way to stay invisible online if you are the target of an intrepid hacker. That said, there are plenty of things you can do to make your computer usage and online browsing safer, which should keep you off the radar of most hackers and spies.