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How to protect yourself from government espionage

Advocates of online privacy finally have intellectual tools to fight back

By Olesia Plokhii Mar 10 2009, 09:56 AM

Hoping to incite a digital retaliation against government spying, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has armed the cyber-masses with an online self-help guide on how to protect individual privacy in the digital age.

The Foundation recently debuted their multi-faceted Surveillance Self-Defense Project, or SSD, to prevent third parties – particularly Uncle Sam – from monitoring personal information stored on computers or transmitted through cable, phone, satellite or Ethernet connections. The effort is a clear push back against the government’s expanded surveillance powers set forth by the Patriot Act in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

“Surveillance Self-Defense details what the government can legally do to spy on your computer data and communications, and what you can legally do to protect yourself against such spying,” the SSD website reads. “It addresses how to protect not only the data stored on your computer, but also the data you communicate over the phone or the Internet and data about your communications that are stored by third party service providers.”

From educating people about their fourth amendment right to deny ‘unreasonable’ searches and seizures, to the deployment of encryption software aimed at rendering sensitive e-mail messages incomprehensible, the SSD is an exciting escalation in what seems to be a privacy cat-and-mouse game.

“Your best and only protection against this [legal seizure of your information] is to encrypt the data that's on your computer so the government can't read it,” reads a part of the manual entitled “What can I do to protect myself?”

Broken down into four sections, the manual analyzes threats and provides remedies for data stored on computers, data that is susceptible to wiretapping while being transmitted through the internet, third party data, and finally – cue the Patriot Act anthem – information monitored by foreign intelligence and anti-terrorism officers.

Despite being easy to read and understand, the SSD, acting as a thorough supplement to legal aid, is overly comprehensive. OhMyGov! combed through the labyrinth-like manual to provide some shocking and informative highlights, which are listed below.

1.    It sucks to be an immigrant.

“The Fourth Amendment protects you from unreasonable searches whether or not you are a citizen. In particular, the exclusionary rule applies to all criminal defendants, including non-citizens.  However, the exclusionary rule does not apply in immigration hearings, meaning that the government may introduce evidence from an illegal search or seizure in those proceedings.”

2.  There is a way around everything.

“Fourth Amendment does not protect you from privacy invasions by people other than the government, even if they later hand over what they found to the government — unless the government directed them to search your things in the first place.”

3.   Debunking urban entrapment myths.

“Infiltrators and undercover agents can lie about their identities and never admit that they’re cops — even if asked directly.”

4.  What to expect when you’re expecting…a search and seizure.

In the case of a search or seizure warrant: Be polite, ask to see the warrant, clearly state that you do not consent to the search, do not resist, don't answer any questions, take notes, ask for an inventory, and call a lawyer. In the case of a plea to search without a warrant, don’t consent.

5.   Icksnay on the talking bay.

“Sneak and Peak Search Warrants: If law enforcement has a warrant, they can enter and search even if you aren't home. Secret searches such as these can be used to install eavesdropping and wiretapping devices.”

6.   Take out the papers and then the trash…

“They can’t get it if you don’t have it: Your organization should review all of the types of documents, computer files, communications records, and other information that it collects and then develop a policy defining whether and when different types of data should be destroyed.”

Other handy tricks for keeping your information safe from Big Brother include enabling a secure password management system, encrypting your data, deleting your message threads from instant message software, and remembering that Facebook tracks all of your shady connections and incriminating pictures of you.

Good luck.


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