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Backlash: growing interest in counter-surveillance tools

Posted by admin November 4th, 2016

Published 18 October
The revelations about the NSA surveillance programs has prompted what some see as high-tech civil disobedience: a growing number of products and applications aiming to limit the NSA’s ability to access encrypted e-mails, obtain phone records, and listen to phone conversations.

The cyberdefense agencies of other countries and terrorist organizations have been busy for a while in efforts to evade the intrusive surveillance practices of the National Security Agency (NSA). Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance programs, which appeared to compromise the privacy rights of American citizens, have triggered a growing interest by other parties in counter-surveillance initiatives. Entrepreneurs eager to cash in on privacy concerns, policy makers, privacy advocates, software engineers, and even criminals are working on developing ways to limit the NSA’s ability to access encrypted e-mails, obtain phone records, and listen to phone conversations.


“Until this summer, people didn’t know anything about the NSA,” Amy Zegart, co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, told Yahoo News.. “Their own secrecy has come back to bite them.”

The revelations have created a global market for services and products which attempt to restrict access to information by unintended parties. Developer Jeff Lyon created Flagger, a computer program which adds red flag terms like “blow up” and “bomb making” to Web addresses in order to confuse intelligence agencies such as the NSA with false leads. The program has so far been installed by 2,000 users. “The goal here is to get a critical mass of people flooding the Internet with noise and make a statement of civil disobedience,” Lyon says. He hopes the program will generate social awareness of privacy issues.

Programmer Kristin Fiskerstrand reported that the downloading rate of Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), a free encryption program, have increased from 600 times a day before Snowden’s revelations to 1,380 times a day two months after the first round of leaks.

Andrew Lewman, executive director of TOR, short for The Onion Router, said that the organization has seen an increased interest in the encryption software. The U.S. government has invested in TOR development in order to help political dissidents in authoritarian countries communicate with each other safely. The documents Snowden leaked show that the NSA tried to crack TOR because it suspected that not only dissidents, but terrorists as well, were using the software.

University of Auckland associate professor Gehan Gunasekara toldthe Yahoo News that he has received “overwhelming support” for his proposal to “lead the spooks in a merry dance,” visiting radical Web sites, setting up multiple online identities, and making up hypothetical “friends.” “Pretty soon everyone in New Zealand will have to be under surveillance,” he said.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have published SafeSlinger, a smartphone app which encrypts text messages to escape surveillance by cell carriers, Internet providers, employers, or any other interested party. Activists have begun to host events with titles like CryptoParties, in which attendees bring their digital devices and learn how to download and use encrypted e-mail and secure Internet browsers. “This whole field has been made exponentially more mainstream,” said Cryptocat private instant messaging developer Nadim Kobeis.
Steven Aftergood, security and privacy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, told Yahoo News that limits to surveillance must be clearly defined – and that the time to do so is now.

“Are we setting ourselves up for a total surveillance system that may be beyond the possibility of reversal once it is in place?” he asked. “We may be on a road where we don’t want to go. I think people are correct to raise an alarm now and not when we’re facing a fait accompli.”

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