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PRISMEver since Edward Snowden blew the whistle on PRISM, the NSA’s no longer secret surveillance program, we know one thing with certainty: nothing that happens online can be considered private. Worse, the leaked documents revealed that companies like Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google have been participating in the program, forwarding user data to the US government. As a result, users from around the world have started to withdraw from US services like Google or Facebook.

Can you really escape the intelligence services’ data hoarders by avoiding specific services? As similar programs in France, the UK, and Germany are revealed, this seems highly unlikely. Moreover, reverting to a service in your home country or a neighboring country that does not record Internet data, doesn’t necessarily mean your data will be safe. The way the Internet works How The Internet Works [INFOGRAPHIC] How The Internet Works [INFOGRAPHIC] Read More makes data privacy and security much more complicated than that. Let’s have a look at how this works.

How The Internet Works

Without going into detail, let’s just say users rarely make a direct connection to an online service. Between point A and B, Internet traffic always passes through several nodes or servers. The sequence of nodes depends on current traffic or data volumes available to the respective provider. Rather than making the most physically direct route, servers typically route traffic along the fastest or least expensive route. Thus data packages can take very awkward turns before they reach their final destination.

Connecting Through The Internet

Obviously, the Internet is an international affair and historically the bulk of the infrastructure is located in the US. In other words, it is very likely that data will pass through a server in a country that engages in Internet surveillance, regardless of where the data originated or where they are meant to go.

To learn about the technical details, have a look into our guide on How The Internet Works.

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Follow The Route Of Your Data With Traceroute

You can trace the route of traffic for yourself using a command line / terminal tool called traceroute.

In your MAC OS, go to Network Utilities, select the Traceroute tab, and type the traceroute command, followed by the domain name in the terminal.

In Windows, click [Windows] + [R], type in cmd and hit [Enter]; this will open the command prompt. Now simply enter the command tracert, followed by the domain name.

A traceroute to MakeUseOf.com for example revealed that between my router in Berlin, Germany and the target server in San Antonio, Texas, data packages passed through 20 different nodes, located in Germany, France, and the US.

Command Line Traceroute

If you’re not comfortable running a command line prompt, you can use the online tool Just-Traceroute Just-Traceroute: Run Traceroute Online Just-Traceroute: Run Traceroute Online Read More or the Mac desktop app WhatRoute WhatRoute: Visualize The Path Data Packets Travel To Reach Your Computer [Mac] WhatRoute: Visualize The Path Data Packets Travel To Reach Your Computer [Mac] Read More .

OpenDataCity Traceroute Demo

You can also get an idea of how traffic is routed using the webapp of German data specialists OpenDataCity. The app visually demonstrates the route of data packages from Germany to a set of exemplary websites like Amazon, Skype or YouTube. Following a list of servers which the data passed through, the app also lists potential data snoopers.

OpenDataCity Traceroute Demo

The example pictured above demonstrates that even data of a local German organization, in this case the yellow press paper BILD, passes through an American server, before being re-routed back to Germany.

What Can You Do?

Not much, except not shutting up about how all of this is a really bad idea. Like this German artist, who projected the words United Stasi of America onto the US embassy in Berlin, Germany.

Government eavesdropping is a highly sensitive topic in Germany, evoking memories of the Nazi Gestapo and the Stasi security police, which used a vast network of informants to crush dissidents in communist East Germany. (…) Washington’s spy methods make the former East German secret police look like boy scouts. – Reuters

Conclusion

You cannot escape international intelligence agencies. The data hoarders sit everywhere and the way Internet traffic is routed means it will pass by one of them at some point. Once you are online, chances are your activities will be recorded and stored somewhere. Encryption only makes you more suspicious and while agencies like the NSA may not be able to crack the encryption code now, they will be cracked in time. Meanwhile, the data is safely stored in their data center.

The upside is that the NSA or other secret services likely have a backup of your precious family photos, provided you shared them on Facebook.

What do you think of PRISM and has it had consequences for any online services you use or how you use the Internet in general? Please elaborate in the comments.

  1. sonwabile
    July 22, 2013 at 6:41 pm

    ahmmm

  2. sonwabile
    July 22, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    mhmm

  3. pd
    July 18, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    Whilst accurate, your conclusion is also rather defeatist. Right now so few people use encryption, the NSA would reasonably expect a high proportion of encrypted data is sensitive data. If the majority of internet traffic were encrypted, this would no longer be the case.

    In addition, a lot of data may not need to remain secret beyond a year or two so when the NSA cracks the data, it will not be of much use. The lag time can also be increased with stronger encryption.

    What is needed is for encryption to become more user-friendly and thus pervasive. Furthermore, websites should be forced to disclose the various hops that information passes through after you submit data to them in a 'secure' form, for example. The way web traffic is 'secured' at the moment is very weak. Browser vendors tried to increase the accountability of websites that claim to handle your data securely over https. This was done in the form of Extended Validation certificates that could only be obtained by organizations that proved they represented the same organization to which the secure domain's website represented. This was a positive move and should be encouraged and expanded upon.

    Furthermore rather than spying on us, we should be forcing governments to legislate the web more than the free-for-all it currently is. No local or national banks should be allowed to operate websites for customers without passing a raft of data security checks.

    In short the web may never be completely 'secure' or private but to simply accept that we will never have a reasonable level of privacy and security on the web is fatalistic and pathetic.Anything in this life that is worthwhile is worth fighting for. Haven't you net kids of today heard the tune?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PaoLy7PHwk

  4. Mr. B
    July 17, 2013 at 3:26 am

    Now that we know we have such an attentive audience, provide some "juicy" content. Pepper your phone calls, emails, internet postings, etc. with all sorts of keywords (drones, obama, nsa, revolution, revolt, terrorism, free energy, etc.). That should keep them busy on wild goose chases trying to track down the immentent top-secret revolution by hundreds of cloaked members that will overthrow and topple the oil energy industry by deploying the free energy device cooked up by Zeus. Or even post/send random raw binary or hexadecimal or ASCII data so they can go nuts trying to decode it. Isn't that fun? Like playing with puppets!

    • Fik of borg
      July 17, 2013 at 4:46 pm

      Excellent idea. I don't have many privacy worries, being a rather dull private cityzen who barely watch vanilla porn sometimes and the ocasional pirated mp3 before deciding to buy it, but I kind of like the idea of offering some entertainment to the poor saps watching us.

      Lets send all emails with signatures like
      kidporn bomb explosives attack murder satan cult
      908235289 908590235 790583645 683468413

  5. dragonmouth
    July 17, 2013 at 12:02 am

    If it took the Snowden case to wake you up to the lack of computer privacy then you been naive for a very long time. Computer privacy disappeared when the first network was created. And things have been getting worse eversince.

    It's the latest rage to point at the US as an example of the worst practices in everything. Don't get too sanguine or too comfortable in your world of self-delusion. If you are on line then your governement is not far behind that of the US in recording any and all data it can get its grubby recording equipment on. And it is not only the governments that are recording and storing data by the zettabyte. Private corporations also have their own databases. For example, your cable company records when you turn on your TV, to what channel, for how long, which ads you watch and which ones you skip, when you switch channels. In other words, ANYTHING that happens on or to your TV is recorded and stored. The scary thing is that in most countries that claim democracy, the actions of the government and its agencies are controlled by some sort of laws and do come under some sort of public scrutiny sooner or later. However, similar actions by private corporations (recording and storage of customer/client data) are under no control or scrutiny whatsoever. As evidenced by Microsoft, Google and others, there are no laws limiting their data collection.

    The only way to make sure that your computer actions are not monitored, recorded and stored for posterity is to make sure that your computer is not connected to any other computer. The only truly secure computer is one that is not plugged into the wall. However, even that does guarantee privacy. There are tons and tons of data about you stored on thousands of different computers around the world and they ARE not only plugged into a power source, but they are also connected to the Internet. Just Google yourself. You'll be surprised what information about you is available for everybody in the world to see. We have let the genie out of the bottle and there is no way in heaven or hell to put him back in.

    Pleasant dreams!

    • Tina Sieber
      July 18, 2013 at 8:12 am

      Don't forget energy companies, who can monitor your activities, including what programmes you watch on TV, through your use of electricity. Not kidding.

      • dragonmouth
        July 18, 2013 at 1:29 pm

        While I did not think of them, I would not be surprised. If the general population knew of the extent of the surveillance going on, it would go very badly for the surveillants. OTOH, as long as the general population has bread and circuses, it does not care what the government and corporations are doing.

  6. Alan Dee
    July 16, 2013 at 11:43 pm

    Can you escape it, yes. Is it practical, not really. One concern I have is people using TOR when they're only trying to escape the "NSA eyes". There are two problems with using TOR.

    First, by using TOR in the first place you're more likely to get the NSA to monitor and log your traffic. In fact, I can almost guarantee that once you use the TOR network all traffic to and from your home will be saved in the data center in UTAH.

    Second, TOR is used by criminals to hide their activities. This is why the NSA (probably) automatically stores all TOR traffic. When you connect to the TOR network then you are now sharing your internet connection with people who are likely downloading porn at best.

    It is worth noting that TOR was built to allow people in countries with "filtered" internet to gain access to that content. So, like the bit torrent protocol, TOR was built for a legitimate purpose.

  7. Markus K
    July 16, 2013 at 7:02 pm
  8. stehug
    July 16, 2013 at 6:52 pm

    Have you ever thought how easy it would be for an anti-virus package to dump all your computer's contents into a government database?

  9. Jaypee C
    July 16, 2013 at 6:33 pm

    i know all about this.. . but still sound creepy :S

  10. P Jackson
    July 16, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    Well, one CAN (only for emphasis) escape 'em. All it takes is this:

    Option #1. Direct (yeah, no one else between) connection to the server(s) that matter you. e.g. for all MUO authors wanting to post in MUO needs a way to access directly to the servers. This means having their own ISP, cables connected to all the computers and other technical stuff.

    #2. If you don't have that much money, then do it the opposite way! 'Make use of' networking protocol(s) like Tor and route all your traffic by so many routes that even you loose count of 'em!

    #3. If the above two doesn't work, disconnect from the internet and protest outside the parliament of your country to stop the way they are spyin' on us. It would really help if you gather thousands of others with you!

    Well, for those looking for the first two options should use a great encryption algorithm of their own (after all the public ones are 'made in the US!') and make it take others almost a century to crack, so that you can rest in peace while they still figure out what those 'pieces' means!

    P.S.: Come on! Let's join the government ourselves! At least we would know who exactly are monitoring us and one can flatter them enough to not mind us well! That seems to be a much better idea!

    • P Jackson
      July 16, 2013 at 5:31 pm

      Just one more thing for the governments who see the above:

      I mean no disrespect. So please do not 'focus' on me!

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