In November, a U.S. congressional House panel approved legislation that renewed the National Security Agency’s internet surveillance program for four more years. This program was initially classified, but former NSA contractor Edward Snowden exposed this practice in 2013.
Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allows the NSA to collect large amounts of data from digital communications — basically, anything you do online falls into this category.
This program authorizes the government to collect information on Americans for a number of reasons. Most importantly, it gathers information on Americans who communicate with a foreign target overseas. These communications can be monitored without a warrant — not only by the NSA, but by the FBI as well.
Obviously, this legislation is facing fierce opposition from technology companies and privacy groups who want to protect U.S. citizens. In fact, the group Reform Government Surveillance, which represents tech companies including Facebook and Apple, warns that this legislation will open the door to expanding government surveillance around the world.
U.S. intelligence agencies, on the other hand, claim this legislation is critical to keeping U.S. citizens and our allies safe from terrorism. I think this is an incredibly slippery slope: Where do you draw the line between gathering intelligence for the security of our nation and invading the privacy of innocent people?
Watch Your Back
The bottom line is we know the government conducts surveillance on civilians. This is one of the many reasons you need to take your privacy into your own hands and enact the necessary steps to protect yourself.
Here are five cybersecurity measures you should consider employing to shield yourself from prying eyes — whether it’s the government or a hacker who’s trying to steal your information:
- Encrypted messaging. No matter what communication device you use (Android, iPhone, etc.), you should download an encrypted messaging program such as Signal or WhatsApp. These secure messaging apps offer end-to-end encryption, which means your messages cannot be deciphered while being transmitted. In other words, your conversation is protected and can’t be seen by anyone other than the people involved in the conversation (the end users). I recommend avoiding messaging platforms that don’t offer encryption such as Google Hangouts because these conversations can easily be intercepted.
- Two-factor authentication. To be clear, there is no evidence that proves the NSA is involved in hacking into the accounts of American citizens. That being said, you should still do everything you can to keep your online accounts safe. With two-factor authentication, not only is a password required to log in to an account, but also some other code or password that is emailed to you or sent to your phone via text message.
- Full disk encryption. This allows you to protect your computer files with an unreadable code that can’t be easily hacked. If you are a Mac user, you should be using FileVault, which should always be turned on to ensure your files are encrypted. If you use Windows, you should have a program called BitLocker, which must be turned on to encrypt your files. Just remember that if you use disk encryption software and forget your password, you will not be able to access your files.
- Don’t share information. When you download an app to your device, you will often be asked to grant permission for the application to access your location, photos, contacts or other information on your device. If you authorize this access, you are essentially exposing that information for others to see — and you never know what information might be stolen or hacked. Only share information if you absolutely must, and always keep your location setting turned off unless you are using it.
- Use a virtual private network (VPN). I recommend using a VPN on your computer, smartphone and tablet any time you are surfing the internet. Basically, a VPN creates a private network that will protect your location and personal information when you’re browsing the internet. This is especially important when using a public Wi-Fi network, however, I suggest always using a VPN — even at home. There are lots of different VPNs out there, but the VPN I personally use is called TunnelBear. Click here to try it out for free. No matter which one you go with, the biggest thing is to make sure the VPN you use doesn’t store any of your information.
If you take the five actions above — and utilize them consistently — you are much less likely to be a victim of government spying or identity theft. So make good cybersecurity habits a top priority in 2018 and take back control of your privacy.