The Most Important Snowden Documents Yet

I have always trusted Bruce Schneier, author of the much-respected 1996 “Applied Cryptography.”

Glenn Greenwald showed Schneier some of the Snowden documents that featured in today’s stories by The Guardian, The New York Times and Propublica. They are the most important, upsetting revelations to date from the Snowden trove. Without doubt.

The NSA, says Schneier, has been breaking most of the encryption on the Net.  He says the U.S. government has betrayed the Internet and we need to take it back.

Schneier summarizes what the NSA has done to make the Internet a more dangerous place and five ways to stay safe online:  Hide in the network. Encrypt your communications. Assume that while your computer can be compromised, it would take work and risk by the NSA – so it probably isn’t.  Be suspicious of commercial encryption software, especially from large vendors. Try to use public-domain encryption.

The NSA was told in the mid-1990s that it could not have the Clipper Chip, the backdoor it wanted into our digital lives . Silicon Valley and Bill Gates objected. By 1996 the Clipper Chip was defunct. So the NSA decided to begin breaking-and-entering on its own. Without our approval.

Greenwald/Snowden gave the public some time to prepare today’s disclosure. First, give it a series of primers on the extent to which the NSA is spying on the American public (not to mention allies). Then unload this zinger.

I want more details. What exactly is compromised? Is everything I do using SSL on my Mozilla Firefox browser compromised?

Boing Boing tweeted KEEP CALM AND USE OPEN SOURCE CRYPTO. Excellent advice. Time to revise my anti-surveillance toolkit.

Two small encrypted email services down. Hire the lawyers.

The Snowden backlash is only just beginning. And so is the resistence. Expect U.S. tech companies that have given the National Security Agency direct access to your data to suffer commercially.  How badly, hard to say. Depends on how deep the public outrage. Three of  Germany’s biggest Internet services, one of them Deutsche Telekom, announced they’ll encrypt customers’ emails.  Unfortunately, their encryption appears to be a bad joke. Here’s Chaos Computer Club release (German).

Phil Zimmermann

The U.S. government forced the hand of a small Texas-based email service,  It seems clear that Lavabit’s owner, Ladar Levison, shut down rather than agree to grant the government access to the data of customers. Snowden is reported to have been among his users. Levison has set up a legal defense fund and is accepting contributions. He likely received a National Security Letter, a search warrant or a subpoena with a gag order attached. He can’t say but he says he’s preparing an appeal to the 4th Circut.

“This experience has taught me one very important lesson: without Congressional action or a strong judicial precedent, I would strongly recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States,” The New York Times quoted Levison as saying.  I can’t find an image of him online.

The other U.S. email service that preemptively shut down belonged to Silent Circle, a company co-founded by Phil Zimmerman, creator of Pretty Good Privacy encrypted email. It says it wiped the discs containing all that email. The encryption keys were on the servers. Not so with the keys that Silent Circle uses for its text-messaging, video and voice comms services. They are end-to-end secure. The encryption keys are erased when the communcation ends.

Now, which big U.S. tech companies will join the legal challenge in defense of First and Fourth Amendment rights?

Yahoo is the only one known to have challenged a gag order of the type Levison apparently got.

The Internet Archive’s Brewster Kahle, an Internet giant committed to nothing less than providing “universal access to all knowledge,” successfully fought a gag order and is one of the few people who can openly discuss what it’s like to get a National Security Letter.  Read here the New Yorker’s interview with him about it.
Meanwhile, more and more people are posting PGP public keys to servers.

Anti-Surveillance tools and tips – not just for journalists

(updated May 12, 2023)

Long before Snowden, we who snoop in the public interest knew that if we weren’t being watched we would be eventually. So we took steps to protect ourselves. Digital self-defense is now vital for everyone, not just journalists. Our toolboxes are ongoing projects. This is mine, and I am grateful to the coders who help protect us. Questions/suggestions/criticisms encouraged.

The point of greatest vulnerability in Internet interaction is the browser. So we use end-to-end encryption via Secure Socket Layer, or SSL. I like the browser add-on “HTTPS Everywhere” from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. HTTPs does not hide the IP addresses of where you visit from “sniffers.” What it does is encrypt your online interactions with a website.

If you want to hide your activity, there’s Tor, short for The Onion Router. Tor is designed to hide your IP address, erase your online footprints.  It is best with a VPN (virtual private network) connection. It is open source, free and backed by a nonprofit. It encrypts bounces connections through a random set of servers called onion routers operated by volunteers. Browsing is slower, but much more secure.  Human rights activists and journalists swear by Tor. So do ransomware syndicates.  *Don’t expect it to work against the NSA or other parties with sophisticated surveillance tools. Download it here.
How Tor works.

Tor is best used with a VPN proxy service. They circumvent censors. Use one with exit nodes in multiple countries that doesn’t log your activity. Choose your service carefully and trust Yael Grauer of Consumer Reports and Wirecutter.

ANONYMOUS SEARCH is the most popular anonymous alternative to Google’s search engine.  Its makers explain why it’s a good idea even if you’re not trying to hide from the NSA or other spooks. own web crawler and also uses other sites.  There’s a Duckduckgo Firefox browser extension. Another good option is the Epic privacy browser that’s built on top of Firefox. Google search can be run through a Tor browser for more complete results. Google will demand that you prove you are not a machine. Startpage is an anonymous search engine hosted in the U.S. and the Netherlands that gets its results from Google. Startpage also offers encrypted email.

Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) doesn’t just encrypt your email. It also authenticates them with digital signatures. Plus it encrypt disk partitions and files. What it does not do is hide from eavesdroppers the identity of those with whom you are communicating. Easiest to use of free PGP products is the combination of Enigmail and the Thunderbird email client. (Swiss-based) is good and private but I would hesitate to trust them completely.

For texting and calls the gold standard is Signal  It is free. WhatsApp uses the same end-to-end encryption tech but its owner is Meta. It tracks user activity — who you communicate with and when — and works hard at getting your address book. The best endorsement of Signal was the $50 million give to the foundation that runs it of WhatsApp co-creator Brian Acton. Signal’s president, Meredith Whittaker, is no friend of Big Tech, either. Signal’s creator, Moxie Marlinspike, is not to be upstaged. I’m inclined to believe him when he says Telegram is not to be trusted.

Use . It creates a secure video/audio chatroom to which one can invite multiple parties.

Encrypt an entire drive or create virtual disks to store data you don’t want seen even by an intruder. Security expert Bruce Schneier recommends BestCrypt  As do I.

A strategy is vital for what to do if border security people demand you unlock the data on your cellphone or laptop so they can review it. You especially need this if you handle info sensitive enough to get someone killed if revealed. Not carrying your work devices is one travel option. Putting it on a cloud-based encrypted backup service like SpiderOakOne is another.

EFF has this Guide for Travelers Carrying Digital Devices.

Whatever you do, make sure you LOCK your PHONE with a long password. No less than eight digits.

(There is a lot out there! Do send me links to guides not listed that should be)

A good guide with a catchy name to open source, free infosec solutions:
The Committee to Protect Journalists’  infosec page.
Press Freedom Foundation compendium of online security tools and how they work.
Surveillance Self-Defense from EFF:
The Tactical Tech Collective
have a very good list of tools and a how-to booklet at