Share This Page

Snooping backlash goes global in bid to foil NSA surveillance

| Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, 7:15 p.m.
Software engineer and entrepreneur Jeff Lyon's 'Flagger' program adds terms such as 'blow up' and 'pressure cooker' to web addresses that users visit in a bid to overwhelm would-be snoops with red-flagged terms.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — From Silicon Valley to the South Pacific, counterattacks to revelations of widespread National Security Agency surveillance are taking shape: from a surge of new encrypted email programs to technology that sprinkles the Internet with red-flag terms to confuse would-be snoops.

Policy makers, privacy advocates and political leaders around the world have been outraged at the near weekly disclosures from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden that expose wide-ranging U.S. government surveillance programs.

“Until this summer, people didn't know anything about the NSA,” said Amy Zegart, co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. “Their own secrecy has come back to bite them.”

Activists are fighting back with high-tech civil disobedience, entrepreneurs want to cash in on privacy concerns, Internet users want to keep snoops out of their computers, and lawmakers want to establish stricter parameters.

Some of the tactics are more effective than others. For example, Flagger, a program that adds words such as “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, Calif., said he's delighted if it generates social awareness, and that 2,000 users have installed it to date. He said, “The goal here is to get a critical mass of people flooding the Internet with noise and make a statement of civil disobedience.”

University of Auckland associate professor Gehan Gunasekara said he has 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 email and browsers, he creates more smoke screens for the NSA. “Encryption loses its value as an indicator of possible malfeasance if everyone is using it,” he said.

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

“This whole field has been made exponentially more mainstream,” said Cryptocat private instant messaging developer Nadim Kobeissi.

Last week, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University released a smartphone app called SafeSlinger that they say encrypts text messages so they cannot be read by cell carriers, Internet providers, employers “or anyone else.”

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 email and secure browsers.

“Honestly, it doesn't matter who you are or what you are doing. If the NSA wants to find information, they will,” organizer Joshua Smith said. “But we don't have to make it easy for them.”

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.