US National Security Agency

Web programs fight back against National Security Agency snoops

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 October, 2013, 5:16am

From Silicon Valley to the South Pacific, counterattacks against widespread surveillance by the US National Security Agency (NSA) are taking shape.

These range from a surge of new encrypted e-mail programs to technology that sprinkles the internet with "red flag" terms to confuse would-be snoops.

Policymakers, privacy advocates and political leaders around the world have been outraged at the near weekly disclosures from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden that expose sweeping US government surveillance programmes.

"Until this summer, people didn't know anything about the NSA," said Amy Zegart, co-director of the Centre for International Security and Co-operation at Stanford University in California.

"Their own secrecy has come back to bite them."

Activists are fighting back with high technology of their own. Some of the tactics are more effective than others. Flagger, a program that adds words like "blow up" and "pressure cooker" to web addresses that users visit, is probably more of a political statement than actually confounding intelligence agents.

Developer Jeff Lyon in Santa Clara, California, said he was delighted if it generated social awareness. "The goal here is to get a critical mass of people flooding the internet with noise and make a statement of civil disobedience," he said.

University of Auckland associate professor Gehan Gunasekara said he had received "overwhelming support" for his proposal to "lead the spooks in a merry dance", visiting radical websites, setting up multiple online identities and making up hypothetical "friends".

And "pretty soon everyone in New Zealand will have to be under surveillance", he said.

Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Parker Higgens in San Francisco has a more direct strategy. By using encrypted e-mail and browsers, he creates more smokescreens for the NSA.

"Encryption loses its value as an indicator of possible malfeasance if everyone is using it," Higgens said.

And there are now plenty of encryption programs, many new, and of varying quality.

CryptoParties are springing up around the world as well. They are small gatherings where hosts teach attendees, who bring their digital devices, how to download and use encrypted e-mail and secure internet browsers.

Pretty Good Privacy, or PGP, a free encryption service, was being loaded about 600 times a day in the month before Snowden's revelations broke. Two months later, that had more than doubled to 1,380, according to a running tally maintained by programmer Kristian Fiskerstrand.

Andrew Lewman, executive director of TOR, short for The Onion Router, said it did not track downloads of the program, which helps make online traffic anonymous by bouncing it through a convoluted network of routers to protect the privacy of users, but had seen an uptick.