Published July 31, 2013
A fifth circuit federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that government authorities can track location data on cell phones without a warrant—but that doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to avoid Uncle Sam’s preying eyes.
The ruling serves as another reminder of the fragility of privacy when it comes to mobile and online data tracking in the wake of leaked documents detailing the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs.
Americans worry more now about government’s surveillance policies encroaching on their rights, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, which found that 56% believe federal courts fail to provide adequate limits on the data the government is collecting in its anti-terrorism efforts. Seventy percent believe the government uses this data for more than just investigating terrorism.
NSA leaker Edward Snowden made the public aware that mass surveillance is a reality, says Hanni Fakhoury, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), who litigated the U.S. Fifth Circuit of Appeals cell-tracking case.
“I hope people are realizing that they are being watched,” Fakhoury says. “I think that all of the recent news about NSA programs and court decisions that approve of surveillance techniques raised awareness of the issue.”
While states may enact their own legislation as to whether or not search warrants are needed to track data, that doesn’t stop the federal government from requesting such information from federal courts and accessing it that way, he says.
Here are a few ways to protect against spooks on your smartphone, computer or tablet:
Encrypted Web Connection
An encrypted web connection will prevent websites you use from tracking your data online, Fakhoury says.
Instead of using the standard HTTP connections, instead opt for HTTPS connections, which provide protection against mass surveillance. EFF has developed HTTPS Everywhere, which is a browser add-on aiming to ensure connections are secure, whenever the site you are browsing supports such a connection.
Off the Record Messaging
Off the record message technology encrypts instant messaging conversations, says Fakhoury and prevents the provider from reading them. This may only work with IM providers that allow the use of external instant messaging software, and you need to install this technology on every devices.
However, Fakhoury warns the encryption only works 100% when you are talking with another user who is on the same OTR messaging program. Examples include Pirdgin, Adium and ChatSecure.
For encrypting email, PGP-compatible (Pretty Good Privacy) software will do the trick when using standalone email applications and not web-based email, says Fakhoury.
His company EFF suggests GnuPG, but Fakhoury warns this technology can be more complicated, as it requires users to manually “create, manage and exchange keys,” according to the foundation.
Tor Software for Online Anonymity
This free software and open network can conceal the location of where you are accessing the internet, even if you log into sites.
The Tor browser sends all browsing activity through the Tor network and prevents an “easy, direct association between where you are coming from and where you are going,” says EFF.