Compliance Management, Privacy

Anonymity exposed: Privacy versus surveillance

It was a rude awakening to many when Edward Snowden sounded the whistle on the National Security Agency's vast and indiscriminate surveillance program.

Wiretapping, tailing and going undercover are not new investigative concepts, but the scale and targets of the agency's digital spying apparatus were shocking, even to those who spent the past decade joking that the government is always watching.

With this in mind, those seeking to rebuff Big Brother and obtain true online privacy have taken to services such as Tor, which can be used to surf anonymously and reach portions of the internet, known as the Deep Web, that aren't indexed by traditional search engines. To ensure one's online communications are kept safe from prying eyes, privacy seekers also have signed on with encrypted email services such as Silent Circle or Lavabit.

But the reality is, platforms promising secrecy aren't off-limits to the government either. In August, 28-year-old Eric Eoin Marques was charged with distributing child porn on hidden services provider Freedom Hosting on the Tor network. The warrant against him coincided with the mass reveal of a Firefox vulnerability that, when exploited, tracked the location of Tor users. 

Meanwhile, in a pre-emptive move in light of the Snowden leaks, Silent Circle and Lavabit suddenly suspended their services out of concern they'd be served with government warrants and subpoenas that requested the email records of subscribers.

“The surveillance landscape is far worse than it has ever been and I feel like everything we do is now observable,” Phil Zimmermann, a co-founder of Silent Circle and the inventor of PGP, told GigaOM. “All of our transactions and communications are all fused together into total information awareness apparatus. I don't think any of this can be fixed merely by the application of cryptography. It is going to require some pushback in the policy space.”

Not all anonymous service providers oppose cooperating with the government. The Tor Project's Executive Director Andrew Lewman said the anonymity network has collaborated with law enforcement previously, but added that government access to these private portals must be limited. 

Lewman warned those desiring more privacy not to use just one anonymity service, explaining that “anyone who is relying on a single tool is already lost.”

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