2013-07-26

A Practical Guide To Hiding Your Online Activity

Do your eyes glaze over when people tell you how to hide your online life--in just 1,000 “easy” steps? It turns out that implementing basic encryption to keep the NSA out of your communication isn’t that hard, even if you’re not technically savvy. We set the nerds loose to teach everyone the easiest ways to encrypt everything.



Why I'm On A Mission To Teach The World Encryption

I'm not a terrorist. Or out to break the law. But I am a little creeped out by the idea of the government reading my chats, texts, and emails. So, one of my friends and I started talking about how to hide our day-to-day digital chatter from curious eyes at the NSA.

We're, well, nerds, so our first thought was to set up our own encryption system to hide our online lives--from chat and email to web browsing, to search, and to transferring files.

Encryption takes simple data--any kind of information stored on a computer--and uses a special password (called a “key”) to transform it into an unreadable garble. This garble can be sent safely over the Internet, because even if a stranger snoops on the data, they won’t know what it says. Once the data gets where it belongs, anyone who has the special key can use it to translate encrypted ishkabibble back into its original form.

Rolling your own encryption system is a little bit tricky, so my friend and I began with some ready-made tools for encrypting what we send back and forth on the Internet. Once we had the easy stuff sorted out, we started getting into more complex encryption methods. We’ll update this article as we discover more tools to help hide your online life.

Selective Vs. Global Privacy

There's never been a question that you can achieve privacy, it’s just a matter of how painful it is to get there. Before we get started, I should make a distinction between selective privacy (hiding occasional emails about particularly sensitive issues) and global privacy (hiding everything).

Setting up selective privacy isn’t very difficult: My friend and I did it very quickly. All of the programs we found are extremely easy to use. The problem: You have to add a bunch of extra steps to every quick IM or email that you send. That’s tolerable if you have a single message that absolutely needs to be encrypted, but it’s not practical if you want to be totally hidden online. One of the questions we’re out to answer is whether you can achieve global encryption without making your life a living hell.

Chat

Cryptocat is a free, open-source program that makes setting up an encrypted chat room almost as easy as sending a message using Gchat or Facebook.

The program comes as a browser add-on for Firefox, Chrome, or Safari. You just download a copy and create a chat room. Then, you pass along the name of the chat room to your buddy (or buddies) and, voila--all of your dumb jokes (or revolutionary scheming) passes through the Internet as gobbledygook until it’s decrypted on the other side.

Cryptocat has a few downsides: All the encryption and decryption adds a little bit of lag time to your messages (it feels slower than Gchat). Plus, you have to go through the hassle of creating the chat room and passing out its name. (Sending out the name has its own risks: If somebody intercepts the name of your chat room then they can use Cryptocat to join your chat room and snoop on your chat.)

But otherwise, everything is really simple: My friend and I were able to move our GChats to Cryptocat in a couple of minutes.

Email

Big webmail systems like Yahoo Mail and Gmail save every single thing you write. So if you ever want to pass a private message through a webmail system, you’ll need to encrypt what you say.

A free tool called Mailvelope makes this process fairly simple. You start off by just downloading the Mailvelope extension for Chrome or Firefox. This part is easy enough--but from here, things get (just a little bit) technical.

Remember that encrypting and decrypting messages requires a pair of keys: one key to encrypt your data, and another key to decrypt your data once it gets where it belongs. Unfortunately, you’ll need to generate your own encrypting and decrypting keys with Mailvelope. Once you generate the keys, you have to send them to your friends, who then have to import them into their own copies of the program.

It’s all a (minor) headache, but Mailvelope makes the process fairly easy, and there is some good documentation to guide you through. Plus, once you’ve gone through the trouble of setting up a Mailvelope exchange, encrypting and decrypting emails is a snap.

My friend and I are both pretty tech-savvy, so it took us about 10 minutes to set up Mailvelope and send an encrypted exchange.

[Image: Flickr user Wayne Wilkinson]