Four Simple Technologies for Privacy We Should All Know

This recently PRISM scandal has made me concerned about security and privacy, even more than before. I truly do not think that the government is spying on me as an individual and will (hopefully) never kick down my doors and take me to the Ministry of Luv. I have nothing to hide. But that’s not the point. Its the principle. You have no right, neither moral nor practical, to monitor my communication. In fact, we have explicit rights protecting us!

But in the wake of the PRISM scandal, we now know with certainty that the government is actively monitoring everyone. Therefore, I would like to impart my knowledge of encryption to the public. Here are four simple ways to keep yourself safe from the government.

A) Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) – This is a widely used, tried and tested method of encrypting text and files prior to sending them to the end user. Because all encryption is done prior to the connection, this is one of the better systems out there.

Here’s how it works: You exchange public keys with whoever you want to communicate with. When you want to send the other person a message, you encrypt the data his public key (not your own). The end-user will decrypt the data with his private key (not yours). Conversely, if someone wants to send you a message, he will encrypt the message with your public key and you will then decrypt it with your (not his) private key.

If that’s confusing, think of it like giving people a lock-box that they can put contents in and lock and no one can unlock it but you. That lock-box is your public key. The key to the lock-box is your private key.

So, a few drawbacks to this method:

  • PGP’s major drawback is that without an infrastructure, anyone can create a fake public key in your name and send it around in your name. Then, he can intercept messages to you, decrypt them, modify them if desired, and send them back to you using your actual public key, and no one would be the wiser. Its a bit complicated, but entirely possible.
    • You easily can get around that by creating a “web of trust”, but it involves a bit more work.
    • You can create an infrastructure for PGP if you want. MIT hosts their famous key server, but there are several infrastructural problems with it.
  • Lets be real, its not 100% user-friendly or intuitive. Mailvelope is the best attempt I have seen to make it more user-friendly and I personally use it when not on Linux.
  • It is feasible that the NSA has the CPU and GPU power to brute-force a low-bit key.

If you are concerned about having your keys broken into, you can try using;

$ gpg --batch --gen-key << EOF
> Key-Type: RSA
> Key-Length: 8192
> Key-Usage: Auth
> Name-Email: [Your email here]
> Name-Comment: [Some comment]

B) Tor, The Onion Protocol – The Tor protocol is a method of obscuring the originating source of a network connection. Tor accomplishes this by bouncing connections off of servers around the world. Each computer you bounce your connection off of knows the previous source and next destination, but does not know the two connections prior or two after. And given that all data through the network is encrypted, no one is able to meaningfully modify the intended next sources. After a number of hops, a final end-point will initiate the actual connection to the intended destination. That final destination perceives the end-point as the source of the connection, but does not know the original source.

Tor is largely used for anonymous web-surfing, but because it functions as a SOCKS5 proxy, it can be used for just about anything!

Another innovation of Tor is Hidden Services. In the aforementioned configuration, the client knows who the server is, but the server does not know who the client is. A Hidden Service is when a server hides its identity, but the client is still able to connect to it. The mechanisms are too complex to explain here, but you can read them on the Tor website.

You can download Tor here.

C) Bitcoin – Bitcoin is an operational electronic currency that are independent of any government. It offers security, anonymity, and is accepted by thousands of people worldwide.

Anonymity – User accounts, called Bitcoin addresses or simply addresses,  appear as 27-34 arbitrary numbers and letters such as 31uEbMgunupShBVTewXjtqbBv5MndwfXhb. In reality, addresses are the equivalent of public keys that are used by payers to sign transactions. Address are completely independent of names, addresses, numbers or any other identifying information. The user has control over them by having the corresponding private key, which again, does not have any associated identifying information.That’s more anonymous than a Swiss bank account!

Secure – Bitcoin uses the robust public-private key infrastructure to secure encryption between bitcoin sender and receiver. The sender of bitcoin (payer) obtains the receiver’s bitcoin address and digitally signs his bitcoins to the receiver. This makes electronic theft done by utilizing the Bitcoin system next to impossible.

The Bitcoin infrastructure has several components. Therefore, if you’re interested, I suggest you watch the following video. Its a bit dated, but n

D) Disk Encryption – Disk Encryption is when data is encrypted while it is stored on your hard-drive.

If someone were to obtain physical access to your machine, either through theft or government seizure (same thing?), they would be able to access everything on your machine, including services and systems you were currently logged in on such as Gmail or Facebook. Disk Encryption is a method of preventing the bad guys from accessing your machine. There are dozens of types of disk encryption. Before I talk about the exact implementations, I want you to understand the concept.

Disk Encryption means that everything on your computer is encrypted, rather than encrypting individual files one by one. However, files are only encrypted when they reside on the hard-drive. So, if you email out a file, it will not be encrypted during transmission. For that, you will need to use PGP or a related technology.

Windows has two main tools, the first is Microsoft Full Disk Encryption. However, this service is proprietary and will require you to have Windows Professional. A free alternative is TrueCrypt, which functions in a similar manor.

One note about disk encryption tools: It is more than theoretically possible to recover the hard-drive encryption keys from the memory. It requires the attacker to literally freeze the RAM with a cooling agent, soft-reboot the machine, then boot into a custom system that performs a RAM-dump via Firewire — I have personally seen this done, it is not just theory.

Conclusion and Comments

The aforementioned technologies are, to the best of my knowledge, technically secure against even to the most sophisticated attackers. However, there is one major weak link in this chain: the end-user. Many times, users make simple mistakes which allow attackers to circumvent the entire protective scheme.

For example, PGP and Disk Encryption ultimately require a password to protect the encryption, in the event that the attacker is able to gain physical access to the hard-drive or private keys. If your password is weak, such as being under 20 characters, your data is liable for decryption.

In the future, I hope that all of these technologies become more easy to use and user-friendly.

The only exception I can think of is if the computing power of the NSA is strong enough to break any of these mechanisms. That’s entirely possible. And violence trumps even that — put a gun to the head of even the most rabid Zionist and I’ll give anyone want they want to save his life.

That aside…happy encrypting!