Edward Snowden has been in the news a lot lately-he’s the guy that blew the whistle on the National Security Agency’s practice of snooping on private e-mail and text messages. He’s also the man that has caused many to wonder about how private their own computer information is, and perhaps wonder if things might be getting worse.
The good news is that there are a lot of very smart people working every day to help people ensure that their private data remains just that. One new kind of technology most people probably don’t know about is called quantum encryption. It’s where engineers use something called quantum entanglement to send encryption keys across the Internet. A group at MIT recently surveyed the possibility of this so-called “perfect” encryption technique becoming mainstream and found it might become reality sooner than later. If so, people will be able to send information across the Internet without fear of it being intercepted by hackers, or their own government.
In the meantime, unfortunately, some information people put on the Internet, is held by someone else-Facebook, for example, or Twitter, or even a cloud source such as DropBox. Files can be encrypted or sealed with a password, but raw data such as that found on Facebook, is at the mercy of the site owner. And sadly, it appears, Facebook et al can be forced by the government to hand over data, passwords or site usage data. Other sites are in the same position as well, but clearly some do a better job of protecting user data from regular hackers than others. Twitter for example was recently identified by the Electronic Frontier Foundation as a highly secure site, while others such as MySpace and Verizon were given very low scores.
But what about smartphones and text messages and e-mails? The government says that people ought to be more careful about creating unbreakable passwords and to not ever put anything serious on their phones. That’s all well and good, but how can people keep the government itself out of their private data? By obeying the law apparently, though the recent news surrounding the NSA suggests even that isn’t sufficient. In general, as the ACLU noted last year, governments at the federal, state and local level have a right to request private data if they feel there is sufficient justification.
What this all means is that until that “perfect” encryption technology becomes available, user privacy is up to users. They can encrypt pictures, documents, etc. with the appropriate software; avoid taking or sending risky pictures or making inflammatory comments. Or stop using the technology altogether.