Seeking Online Refuge From Spying Eyes

From, By JENNA WORTHAM,  10/19/13


Consider this scene in “The Circle,” Dave Eggers’s new novel that imagines a dystopian future dominated by an omnipotent social networking company: Mae, the young protagonist, tries to unplug from her hypernetworked life to go on a covert, solitary kayaking trip. But when she returns to shore, she is greeted by police officers who have been alerted to her excursion by several hidden cameras. She quickly realizes that very little in her life isn’t recorded, tracked and analyzed.

It’s a troubling image, one that some fear might not be limited to works of fiction. In fact, some elements of Mae’s scenario have emerged recently in the news. There was the report that the National Security Agency can create sophisticated maps of some people’s personal information and social connections. There were the recent changes to Facebook’s privacy settings that will no longer allow users to hide their profiles from public searches. In addition, Google recently revealed that it was considering using anonymous identifiers to track browsing habits online, raising hackles among privacy advocates who have described it as “the new way they will identify you 24/7.”

And, at the same time, drones are becoming commonplace — used by the government in counterterrorism efforts and by hobbyists — prompting discussions about the long-term impact on privacy.

These developments, among others, have spurred the creation of a handful of applications and services intended to give people respite and refuge from surveillance, both online and off. They have a simple and common goal: to create ways for people to use the Internet and to communicate online without surveillance.

Nadim Kobeissi, a security adviser in Montreal who works on an encrypted-message service called Cryptocat, said the security and hacker circles of which he is a part have long suspected that the government is listening in on online conversations and exchanges but “have never been able to prove it.” He added: “It’s been a worst-case-scenario prediction that all turned out to be true, to a worrying extent.”

If nothing else, the N.S.A. leaks and disclosures have brought these issues front and center for many people, myself included, who are troubled by how much of our daily and online interaction is concentrated in and around a handful of companies that have funneled data to the N.S.A.

“It’s sad that this is the proverbial kick in the butt that needs to bring awareness to this concept,” said Harlo Holmes, who works for the Guardian Project, a group that is building several anti-surveillance and privacy applications.

Ms. Holmes says interest has been surging in the Guardian Project’s services, which include tools that let people make phone calls over the Internet which the organization says cannot be recorded. More than a million people have downloaded an app called Orbot that allows users to send e-mails anonymously through mobile devices.

She said it was common to assume that people who want to avoid detection online are doing illicit things, like trying to buy drugs or look up illegal content — and that may happen. But it is certainly not the intent.

She says the Guardian Project and its peers are built for people who live under governments that don’t allow access to the Web or to certain apps, as well as for people who simply don’t like the idea of their online activity being tracked and monitored. Ms. Holmes says that most of the tools are used by people in totalitarian states. “We get a lot of feedback from people who use it to get access to blogs and sites they can’t access because of a firewall,” she said, referring, for example, to a government blocking access to Twitter.

Most of these services are still relatively small. For example, Cryptocat, the encrypted-message service, typically sees peaks of around 20,000 simultaneous users. In recent months, that number has grown to 27,000. But it’s a far cry from the hundreds of thousands, or even millions, that mainstream social networking tools and services can claim.

“As good as all of our intentions are, whatever looks good and is user-friendly gets critical mass,” she said. “That is what is going to take off.”

But those who work on these services say they don’t have to compete directly with the Facebooks, Twitters and Googles of the world. They just have to offer an alternative, independent space where people can interact if and when they need to.

Dan Phiffer works on a project called that gives people access to a private messaging forum by creating small, localized pockets of Internet access. People who are nearby and whose laptops or mobile devices detect the network are directed to a discussion board where they can interact. Inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, the idea was to allow activists and organizers to interact in a way that would be hard for police officers to track.

His project is naturally resistant to Internet surveillance, “but its original purpose was not for countersurveillance,” he said. “What I am trying to do is build alternative online spaces for supporting activists and those who might be sympathetic to their cause.”

Mr. Phiffer also thinks that the project can have much larger implications and motivate “broader political engagement by offering a tool for people who are tired of the disregard of their civil liberties by their government.”

Of course, there is no guarantee that the Guardian Project, Mr. Kobeissi’s project, or any others like it are safe from being broken into by a government or a hacker or another entity. But Mr. Kobeissi said that there was an upside to all of the disturbing security disclosures: at least now, he said, the security world can deal with the information disclosed in leaks “on a per-revelation basis” to make its own offerings stronger and more secure.

The truth, he said, is that “we are developing software in an unknown environment, even though we know so much about the threats being posed.”

“The specifics are always changing,” he added.

Tools like Cryptocat, he said, are just the impetus for a larger discussion. “It’s not an answer by itself,” he said. “It is a combination of privacy and technology, democratic movement and political discussion that it is not acceptable to use the Internet as a surveillance medium.”

A version of this article appears in print on 10/20/2013, on page BU3 of the NewYork edition with the headline: Seeking Online Refuge From Spying Eyes.

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