The Canadian government recently introduced legislation that would expand its powers to monitor Canadians Internet activity. Even though the legislation has not yet been passed into law, we already know that governments around the world are monitoring Internet communications. Luckily, there is an abundance of ways to help protect your privacy in cyberspace. The main obstacle to many of these technologies becoming commonplace is a lack of users. For example, it is possible to send encrypted e-mails, but unless the other people within your social network are using the technology, no one will be able to read your messages. If enough people are concerned about protecting their privacy, we may see the critical mass of people necessary to seamlessly integrate some of these technologies into our daily computing experience. Detailed below are some of the ways to protect yourself on the Internet.
There are numerous ways to encrypt data that is either being sent over the Internet or stored on a local drive. One of the best pieces of encryption software is The GNU Privacy Guard (GPG), which uses a public/private key system to verify identities, encrypt files, and send encrypted information via e-mail. Users are able to create public keys and upload them to key servers. Other users can then sign their key once they have verified the identity of the key holder. This creates a "web of trust" to help verify that people are who they say they are. People can then send out e-mails with their GPG signature attached so others can be confident of the sender's identity. The system can also be used to encrypt e-mails and files, which can only be decrypted by a specific person or group of people on the other end.
Another method that can be used to hide the fact that an encrypted message is being sent is known as steganography. Using this method, a message can be hidden within a picture, making it hard for a third-party to detect the presence of the hidden message, let alone find out what it says. An extensive list of steganography software can be found at StegoArchive.com. As an example, I used a piece of software called diit to embed the DeCSS source code, which is used to decrypt DVDs and is illegal in some jurisdictions, into an image from my trip to Phoenix. Note that there are ways to break steganography and corresponding workarounds. See here and here for more information.
The advantage of a technology like steganography is that it provides plausibly deniable encryption. In other words, one can claim they had no idea that extra information was hidden within the file they distributed. Other pieces of software offer additional methods of hiding information within other types of files, either for transmission or local storage, including TrueCypt, Elettra, and Rubberhose.
Surveillance is not only a concern when sending messages over the Internet, it can also be used to find out what websites a person has visited and the identity of people posting anonymous comments on blogs. Likewise, governments can go after hosting providers and use filtering technologies to censor information. Fortunately, technology exists that facilitates anonymous browsing, file sharing, and publishing.
Tor is a piece of software that hides the user's identity when surfing the web and preforming other tasks on the Internet. According to the Tor website, "Tor protects you by bouncing your communications around a distributed network of relays run by volunteers all around the world: it prevents somebody watching your Internet connection from learning what sites you visit, and it prevents the sites you visit from learning your physical location. Tor works with many of your existing applications, including web browsers, instant messaging clients, remote login, and other applications based on the TCP protocol."
While software like Tor allows one to browse anonymously, it does not solve the problem of government censors tracking the owners of websites or shutting them down entirely. Anonymous Peer to Peer (P2P) networks allow people to share information anonymously and can be vital in preventing censorship. Freenet is a decentralized, censorship resistant network that runs as a background process on the computers of the people that use the network. Information is distributed across the network, making it impossible for any group to impose its views on others by censoring information.
Think of Freenet as a parallel Internet. It allows for anonymous browsing and publishing of websites (Freesites) and blogs (flogs), as well as e-mail (Freemail), messaging, and file sharing. In many ways, Freenet reminds me of the Internet in the mid-1990s. Just don't expect any Web 2.0 technologies and be prepared to wait awhile for things to download. The more people that use Freenet, however, the faster it becomes.
It is also possible to make encrypted telephone calls over the Internet. Be aware that Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) software has the ability to make calls between Internet connected devices or between networked devices and the traditional PSTN telephone network. While it is possible to encrypt a transmission between VOIP clients, calls that go to regular telephones will be subject to traditional wiretapping mechanisms. There exists a draft standard for encrypted VOIP calls known as ZRTP. A number of software packages support ZRTP, including Zfone, SIP Communicator, and FreeSWITCH.
The Benefits of Free Software
I have, wherever possible, recommended using free software packages to protect your rights online. While there are many benefits to using free software over proprietary software, it becomes even more important where freedom of speech and privacy are concerned. When a program is licensed as free software, its source code (the language used to create the software) is available for anyone to review. There have been examples in the past of companies and governments creating "back doors" in software so certain people can gain access to your data. By using free software, one can ensure that their software is as secure as possible.
The prospect of the Canadian government increasing its ability to spy on its citizens and circumventing the courts is, without a doubt, a scary prospect. It would be best if we could convince what I once thought was a freedom-loving government to drop the proposed IP21C Act outright. It will likely be a short time before the government starts going after the software that bypasses its surveillance measures. In the mean time, however, there are numerous steps that Internet users can take to preserve their anonymity and prevent the state from trampling on our rights to freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press.