As I discussed in my most recent post, thanks to last week’s newest revelation–that the NSA scans virtually all communications between Americans and their correspondents overseas, based on the conveniently inexplicit and ambiguous rule that the NSA may “seek to acquire communications about the target that are not to or from the target”–it has become clear that the organization’s surveillance activities have gone far beyond not only what is right and necessary for national security, but what is legal in a democracy. And the news last night, released by the Washington Post, that an internal audit has shown that the NSA broke privacy rules or overstepped its legal bounds by almost 2,800 incidents within a year certainly doesn’t help.
In his much publicized press conference last Friday, President Obama responded to this newest disclosure by promising to address the scope of the NSA’s surveillance programs–and the ambiguity of the NSA rules regarding surveillance–and proposed several specific initiatives that aim to increase transparency and restore the public’s trust in both the agency, and in the government itself.
While the President has, indeed, taken the first symbolic step towards rectifying this jarring violation of everyday Americans’ privacy in announcing that efforts will be made to increase transparency and subject the NSA to independent oversight, Americans who are concerned that their privacy is being violated on a day-to-day basis should not be comforted by these words and promises of future action.
While I have no doubt that a degree of effort will be taken to reign in and circumscribe the purview of the NSA, an additional fact is clear: the White House is playing politics.
President Obama and his staff understand that criticism of the NSA’s policies is coming from both the left and the right, and that in order to respond to critics and protect what is left of the President’s dwindling political capital, the White House must balance the concerns of the security community with those of the general public.
However, Obama is in no rush to push through reforms, and it is very likely that the congressional oversight and investigation of the NSA’s surveillance program, in addition to the bipartisan effort that will be needed to streamline and prevent any further overreach within the surveillance program, are still a ways down the line.
Put another way, if you’re looking to protect your private communications, it’s time to look beyond President Obama’s assurances that the scope of the NSA’s power to intercept and scan American citizens’ communications will be reigned in and clearly circumscribed.
There are ways to shield yourself from the NSA’s broad and intrusive searches. Indeed, in this age when it would be naive to assume that any phone call, email or text sent overseas is truly confidential, certain new encryption programs allow everyday Americans to take their privacy into their own hands.
These types of programs are designed to restore both the average person’s privacy rights, and to protect corporations from the government’s wave of daily global intercepts.
Simple to install on cell phones and handheld devises, these technologies are the pragmatic, real-time way to have secure communications in an insecure environment–an environment that, thanks to political foot-dragging and congressional gridlock, is unlikely to become any more secure in the near future.
Take SeeCrypt, for instance.
SeeCrypt is an inexpensive app for mobile phones that protects private voice calls and text messages made anywhere in the world. This is possible thanks to advanced encryptions that change key with every text message sent, and unique per-call encryption keys that make calls virtually impossible to intercept.
And SeeCrypt is not alone–a wide range of email encryption software is now easily available online, frequently for free. Infocrypt is a free, web-based service that ensures that anyone who intercepts your encrypted messages without the encryption password you’ve chosen will not be able to read the original message. Enigmail, Rmail, and iSafeguard software offer similar services.
Google has caught on as well: SafeGmail is a free extension of Google Chrome that allows users to send encrypted emails that automatically expire after a given period of time.
With prices as low as only dollars a month–and some completely free of charge– regaining your privacy has become simple and affordable.
It is only right that everyday Americans should have the ability to protect themselves from the NSA’s invasive, imprecise, drag-net scans for information on foreigners under surveillance.