While mega IT behemoths including Apple, Google, Microsoft, Dell, HP, Cisco, Juniper, et al, may, or may not deny any knowledge of, or cooperation with, the US National Security Agency (NSA) and its international counterparts, or nemeses, the fact is that near ubiquitous, secret backdoor access to networks and computing and communications devices has been gained.

The problem is that secret court orders can direct any company or individual to cooperate with NSA et al – in absolute, enforceable, silence.

Since former, President George W. Bush enacted the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001 - a ten letter acronym that stands for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism – law enforcement agencies have had incredibly wide reaching powers.

iTWire will not attempt to analyse the far reaching consequences of this Act that bought the following acts under its purview:

  • Electronic Communications Privacy Act
  • Computer Fraud and Abuse Act
  • Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act
  • Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act
  • Money Laundering Control Act – Bank Secrecy Act
  • Right to Financial Privacy Act
  • Fair Credit Reporting Act
  • Immigration and Nationality Act
  • Victims of Crime Act of 1984
  • Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act

Over the ensuing years, tacit - never explicit – acceptance of the PATRIOT Act led to President Barack Obama signing the Sunset Extension Act 2011. It legitimised or extended powers such as roving wiretaps [encompassing all internet protocol data packets like email, data, web searches etc.], searches of business records [a very widely used and abused term], and conducting surveillance of lone wolves [individuals suspected of terrorist-related activities not linked to terrorist groups]. The real sting in the tail is that monitored activities do not have to be terrorist related – just potentially illegal.

After whistle blower Edward Snowden revealed alleged abuses of the PATRIOT Act by NSA and the PRISM project, Republican representative Jim Sensenbrenner who introduced the Patriot Act in 2001, said that the National Security Agency overstepped its bounds. He released a statement “While I believe the Patriot Act appropriately balanced national security concerns and civil rights, I have always worried about potential abuses. Seizing phone records of millions of innocent people is excessive and un-American.”

Is it a fair Act – no. Is it a necessary Act – definitely so.

No matter how well intentioned governments are Edward Snowden has done us all a favour by shining a light on abuses of power - things that good governments and normal people should not need to worry about.

The problem is that every security agency is in ‘cover my ass mode’ instead of using this as a global opportunity to cooperate and draft new legislation that makes it harder for the bad guys and easier for the good guys without limiting personal freedoms that some have waged wars to protect. Let’s just call this a ‘no spy’ pact that relies on openness and cooperation. Apologies for dreaming – must be sleep writing again!

The headlines since Snowden fled to Russia – of all places to seek protection – show that all super powers and wannabe’s are doing this stuff. Britain’s GCHQ actively monitors Germany, Israel and the EU countries and vice versa, Russia has a very sophisticated monitoring program in the Middle East and US, China appears to be monitoring everyone, and even Australia has an eye on its near neighbours.

This spying sickness has morphed down to a personal level.

Want to know more about your competitors. It is all too easy to set up fake LinkedIn or Facebook pages using a link-click-through to view supposed photos or a “CV” – this has become the service delivery hacking mechanism for unscrupulous bastards to hijack corporate networks.

Unfortunately if a corporation is being spied on – and how would it know anyway - there is not much that can be done except to do a clean install of every operating system and all software from original disks and change all passwords. Regrettably, that will not stop BIOS, router or root-based spyware that the NSA prefers but it is a start.

On a personal level, stop sharing so much! Opt out of the highly addictive facebook – delete it and start the onerous task of cleaning up your internet tracks. The same goes for Linkedin, Google+ and more. If you must use a birthdate put in a fake one! If you must use a password reminder like your mother’s maiden name ditto.

Set up your smartphone to reject advertising cookies, delete your Advertising ID, and turn off location based apps. Check each app and turn off vicarious permissions – most will still work.

Unsubscribe from every unnecessary mailing list instead of just deleting the email.

Check the profiles of every loyalty program - clean them up and replace personal details with false information where you can (hint: subtract 10 years from your birthdate, reverse your mother's maiden or pets name).

Just remember that the internet is not a nice place and these few tricks will ensure that someone else will have ID theft before you do – but it won’t fool the NSA …

Start using ‘anonymizer’ software to hide your IP address from others- even a basic one like peerblock [good for Torrent users] or Tor will be better than nothing but the original Anonymiser at US$80 per annum is seriously good software.

Paranoia is healthy in small doses – with the revelations of 2013 behind us, 2014 is the time to seriously consider what can be done to avoid MADware, Malware, and NSA intrusion into our lives.

Oh – if you have a guilty conscience – do not use a smartphone or a computer …

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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