Every person who goes onto the Internet, who looks for something with a search engine, communicates by e-mail, uses a mobile phone or participates in social networks like Facebook leaves digital tracks. And the companies that operate these services and also government agencies that have access to this data can use these tracks to create a detailed profile of a person`s preferences and interests. This starts in the morning when you call up your e-mails on your mobile phone or make a date with a friend through Facebook, and ends before you go to bed when you search Google for natural sleep aids or check tomorrow`s weather.
This may all sound relatively harmless.
The list of companies is like a veritable "who is who" of the Internet industry: Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, YouTube, Skype, Yahoo, AOL and PalTalk. This means that the NSA can read private e-mails on Gmail, Apple`s iMessages and Yahoo, as well as all private messages that we put on Facebook and documents that we send using Google Drive. "When the government has full access to these services, this includes everything. We are all affected," Max Schrems, who holds a law degree, told futurezone.
What they know about us
Schrems has already tussled with Facebook. During his studies, he filed 22 complaints against the company with the data protection authorities in Ireland because he felt that Facebook is violating European data protection laws. "Facebook knows that I am from Salzburg and that I went to a certain school, even though I did not provide this information about myself.
The network knows everything about me because it analyzes the profiles of my friends and draws conclusions from this," Schrems explained. This means that Facebook even knows a lot about people who reveal little about themselves on Facebook, and that sharing as little information about yourself as possible does not really prevent you from leaving digital tracks in the Net. "When all of your friends are members of a political party, Facebook automatically assumes that you are also a member. And tags on photos in Facebook tells the company where you were recently."
We pay with our data
Companies like Google and Facebook provide us with services that we use every day free of charge – not because they are so generous, but because we pay them with our data. For example, Google knows exactly what sites we prefer when we want to check the weather. Google personalizes its search results on this basis, and may not show us certain weather information providers the next time we search.
When we send private e-mails planning our next trip to Corfu with friends using Gmail or Yahoo, the US companies analyze the content and show ads for vacation destinations in Greece on the page. Facebook uses the "Like" button that is integrated into many web sites to collect personal information about us. This tells Facebook what pages we visit, and the company uses this information for advertising.
Big brother is watching
And the NSA now has access to all of this information. But this does not mean that people are sitting there analyzing our data every day. The initial analyses are completed by computers, and a person does not take a look at our digital tracks until we are classified as suspicious. But if you think that you have nothing to hide and could never be classified as suspicious, think again. It doesn`t take a lot.
Thomas S., a student, was friends with a former classmate from one of his schools on Facebook, for example. This friend developed right-wing leanings after leaving school. Once Thomas S. noticed this, he ended the Facebook friendship. But Facebook saves all of your deleted friends forever. It just so happened that the student ordered a pizza every Friday at this time. But the pizzeria was identified as a meeting place for Neo-Nazis. Since Thomas S. always picked up his pizza there himself, he was suddenly a suspect. Now, he has to prove his innocence.
Austrians are also on America`s no-fly list
That`s not the only example. Many people are added to America`s no-fly lists without ever knowing why. For example, a flight from Paris to Mexico was rerouted because Paul-Emile Dupret, consultant to the leftist group in the European Parliament, was on board. Dupret was never charged with a crime.
The Austrian illustrator Eugen K., who has had cartoons for the Occupy movement published on the Internet, was also denied entry in October 2012. The artist has never found out why he is not allowed to travel to the USA. A German student who wanted to go to America as an au pair was detained at the airport in the USA. She was presented with detailed records of all messages that she had exchanged with the father of her host family over Facebook. This clearly shows that the American government knows a lot more about us than we could ever imagine.
How to protect yourself
As the NSA`s monitoring affects central Internet services that we use every day, normal people can do little to protect themselves against this. This would require online abstinence, and would mean changing how you do things, sometimes in major ways, or would at least make Internet usage more complicated.
In fact, you would have to start in your choice of an operating system. You would not be able to use Microsoft Windows, Apple OS X or Google Chrome OS if you want to avoid being monitored by the US spy agencies. Instead, you would have to use Linux systems like Debian or Fedora.
Anonymous surfing and searching
If you want to remain anonymous while you surf, you can use the Tor anonymizer software. This program replaces your IP address with a different one. There is a free version for anonymous mobile surfing for Android devices called Torbot. You should also not use the browsers Safari (from Apple), Internet Explorer (from Microsoft) or Chrome (from Google). Firefox from Mozilla is safe.
You can look for things with search engines that do not save your queries, like DuckDuckGo and IXQuick. They also do not share personal information with third parties.
Storage and e-mail
Instead of Google Drive, it is best to use a cloud storage service from an Austrian or European provider, or to go back to old-fashioned external drives (preferably more than one).
And instead of using an e-mail account from Google or Yahoo, you can use a small local e-mail provider. This also ensures that no one in Austria can snoop on what you are writing – because the country has a
If you do not want to or cannot forgo services from Microsoft or Google, you should at least think about encrypting sensitive e-mails, for example that could reveal business secrets. This can at least make things a little harder for the NSA.
You can use Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) for this, a program that was developed by Phil Zimmermann for the encryption of data. The open-source addon is implemented in numerous e-mail programs, including Microsoft Outlook. There are also mail apps for mobile operating systems that can use the encryption technology.
If you want more ideas for protecting your online collaboration, instant messaging, media services like video and photo platforms, services for Android smartphones and iPhones, and video conferencing solutions, you can go to prism-break.org.
"Stealth wear" against geotracking
You can also prevent your phone from knowing where you are at all times. You can turn off the location function for the services that you use by prohibiting apps from accessing you current location. If you want to go a step further, you can get a case called
It was created by American artist Adam Harvey, who has developed his own line of anti-surveillance fashion that goes by the name of Stealth Wear. In addition to the phone case, there is also an X-ray blocking T-shirt and a hooded sweatshirt that protects against thermal sensors on drones. Harvey has also developed special camouflage makeup that is designed to prevent detection with face scanners. Such offline tools primarily offer protection against everyday surveillance – because we don`t just leave digital tracks on the Internet, but also on our way to work when we are filmed by security cameras.
Do we automatically change our behavior?
Whether we realize it or not, we automatically change our behavior when we know that our communication and our online activity is being recorded and monitored.
A Forsa study in Germany in 2008, which looked at people`s communication behavior five months after the implementation of data retention, which has since been abolished by the constitutional court, found that 11 percent of Germans decided against communicating by e-mail or telephone in some cases because of the storage of their data without grounds for suspicion. It was especially noteworthy that 52 percent of those surveyed no longer contacted sensitive institutions like drug advice centers and psychotherapists by e-mail or telephone.
Privacy is a fundamental human right
Would we now post on Facebook that we joined a union when we know that our boss is opposed to unions? Or would we reveal online that we joined a certain party when this information could be damaging to us? We censor ourselves automatically when we have the feeling that we are being watched – and that is extremely problematic, because it massively curtails our freedom.
The right to privacy is also a binding human right that also has to apply in the Internet age, even when we voluntarily reveal a lot of information about ourselves on the Internet.