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Does encryption really shield you from government's prying eyes?

Zach Miners | June 17, 2013
Encrypting data may not guard against surveillance, some experts say, while others argue in favor of taking steps to protect privacy.

Some do seem to live and die by encryption. Here's what Michael Goldstein, a computer science student at the University of Texas at Austin, does: He chats on Facebook with the open source Jitsi communicator. He chats with Cryptocat. He uses the PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) software for encrypting certain emails. His hard drive is encrypted with TrueCrypt. He's a fan of Tor, which is designed to keep people's anonymity intact, for accessing the Internet. He also likes Mega for cloud storage. There's RetroShare for encrypted chat, email, forums and other social networking with "certain friends." TextSecure too.

"Whenever possible, I encrypt my communication," he said. Clearly.

And let's not forget Bitcoins, a digital currency designed to allow decentralized and anonymous payments, which Goldstein also uses.

"To me, and many people of a more libertarian persuasion, recent news has been more of a validation of prior beliefs than a shocking revelation," he said.

"This is not a big shock. It's an open secret in my business," said John Kindervag, an analyst with Forrester.

Some tech entrepreneurs agreed.

Prism "is an important reminder that what we share online and communicate to others via technology can, and sometimes will, be seen by people that we didn't intend to see it," said Justin Johnson, co-founder at Late Labs, a crowdcoding startup based in San Francisco.

Others are less Orwellian. "It's more likely that a hacker is trying to guess your password than the NSA is coming after you," said Robert Banagale, CEO at secure messaging app maker Gliph.

But, while using encryption might be good for keeping accounts secure, using it to try to dodge the NSA is probably futile, he added.

How receptive Internet users are to government surveillance in the interest of fighting terrorists is harder to gauge, but what's clear is that online privacy is at risk.

If privacy isn't dead, it's certainly on life support, said John Simpson, director of the Privacy Project at Consumer Watchdog. "These tech companies, and the government, know more and more about people's private lives," he said.

Others say the fundamental philosophy behind the Internet, that of an open network for the free-flow exchange of information and ideas, renders encryption moot, especially given the nature of the U.S. economy.

Why don't most people just encrypt everything end to end? "Because that's not in capitalism's interests," said Columbia's Moglen. "When the economy is primarily about consumption, the behavior of consumers is the most important information it has. That's what information technology is about as far as capitalism is concerned."

People like the man behind the NSA leaks, Edward Snowden, "who think the technology revolution is about freedom," Moglen said, "they're characterized as traitors."


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