Geek Vs Geek: Should You Be Worried — Or Furious — About NSA Spying?

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Are you comfortable with the idea that the Federal government is spying on you, Mr and Mrs Average Citizen? That’s the revelation from Edward Snowden’s disclosures and subsequent news coverage, and not everyone is thrilled to know that the NSA is holding a giant magnifying glass over your head, 24/7. But is this a cause for alarm? Dave and Rick have different opinions, but both have some useful advice for enhancing your online privacy.

Once a month, eHow Tech editor Dave Johnson faces off against Rick Broida, who writes about technology for CNET, PC World, and Wired. Follow along as they tackle this question from opposing corners.

Rick: Big Brother is watching. We’ve been hearing this refrain for a long time now, and while it’s true the government may be watching a little more closely than we suspected, I don’t consider my privacy invaded or civil liberties infringed. Indeed, in a country of 311 million people, it seems a little narcissistic to worry that the government gives a hoot what I’m doing. (Unless, of course, I’m not paying my taxes. Which I am! Absolutely. Nothing to see here.)

Dave: We’re clearly starting from the same place, Rick — I don’t believe that my privacy has ever been invaded by the government. Nor do I think my civil liberties are being compromised. That’s true when I’m getting patted down at the airport and when the NSA captures the metadata associated with my phone calls and email. On the other hand, where do we draw the line? More importantly, are America’s intelligence agencies even capable of drawing a line? The NSA is a secret agency with a secret budget that receives virtually no meaningful oversight from anyone. Which leads to the inevitable question: What’s the limiting principle that will keep us from becoming a police state?

Rick: History. One need only look back at Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare to realize that nothing of that magnitude has happened since, even in a recent history pockmarked by scandals like Watergate, Iran-Contra, Linda Tripp, and so on. In fact, one could argue that government surveillance works as it’s intended, revealing lies and cover-ups that might otherwise have stayed hidden. And if the NSA is working in the interests of public safety, like to prevent terrorist activities, what’s the harm?

Dave: You assert that the NSA is working in the interest of public safety, and it probably is, but we’re both taking that on faith. We don’t really know, and in fact, no one knows — that’s my whole point about the lack of oversight. Do you really believe that the government always has your best interests in mind just because they say so? Heck, look no further than the recent serious allegations of systemic abuse within the IRS. But let me give you a practical example. Remember when AOL released all those search queries back in 2006, purged of identifying information? That wasn’t much consolation for real, live people who were easily identified based on the nature of their supposedly sanitized searches. Now tell me how that’s substantially different than PRISM’s metadata collection.

Rick: I honestly don’t know, because as you noted, we don’t know the actual intent behind these activities. But allow me to make the mother of all naive arguments: I’m not breaking the law, so I don’t have anything to worry about. I understand it’s a slippery slope and all that, but I’ll ask you the same question I ask others who wring their hands over government snooping, Google inbox-scanning, and other so-called privacy invasions: To what end? What is the government going to learn about me it doesn’t already know? That I have certain political views? That I order pizza twice a week? And if Google wants to send me pizza coupons based on my previous visits to pizza-related Web sites, I say have at it. To live in an online world means allowing aspects of your world to exist online. I’m way more concerned about hackers making off with my credit-card number than I am about the government locking me up because I eat too much pizza.

Dave: Actually, I’m still reeling from your assertion that the government’s limiting principle is “history.” Bravo! My favorite color is iPhone. Unfortunately, it sounds to me like you don’t believe there should be a limiting principle, which equates to the government can do anything it feels it can get away with. Likewise, not caring about surveillance because you don’t (think that you) have anything to hide ignores the very foundation of our nation — the rule of law. We have laws to protect everyone equally, and your “this doesn’t affect me so I don’t care” attitude puts minority groups and people on the fringe of society at risk of government abuse. Those are the very people laws are designed to protect. The reason we should be more concerned about the government than Pizza Hut is that Pizza Hut isn’t equipped with handcuffs, guns, and prisons. So all that said, do you believe that there’s no need to take precautions to protect our privacy online?

Rick: Now you’re just putting words in my mouth. (Ptooey! Blech, they’re awful!) You should absolutely take steps to protect your privacy, starting with using a password manager (my favorite is Dashlane) to generate and store ultra-secure passwords for all your online activities. It’s also a good idea to use disposable e-mail addresses for non-critical communications and even disposable phone numbers for things like Craigslist and Ebay transactions. But, again, that’s because I see a greater risk from identity-stealing hackers than I do from Big Brother. Unfortunately, with companies like Microsoft handing over encryption keys to the NSA, there’s not much we can really do to stay out of the government’s crosshairs — unless you favor living off the grid. Enjoy the woods, Grizzly Adams!

Dave: That’s Mister Adams to you, bub. And good job thinking up a reference that no one under the age of 40 will recognize. Anyway, I’m glad you agree that there’s some value in safeguarding your privacy online. Even if you intentionally overpay your taxes, like I do, to make up for people who intentionally cheat the IRS, like you do, there are plenty of reasons to be careful online — including hackers. And criminals. And criminal hackers. But your suggestions are excellent. Personally, I use Roboform to store my passwords, and LastPass is a good option too. Whatever you do, I highly advise you to avoid storing passwords in your browser, because that can be downright dangerous. And follow smart password strategies, such as never using the same password on more than one site. As for using your browser’s private mode, that’s often misunderstood — it doesn’t cover your tracks online, it only prevents sites you visit from being stored in the history on your PC. So if you’re really paranoid, you can use Tor, which is the state of the art in remaining anonymous. Or just check out how to keep the NSA from watching your every move online. Whatever you do, just don’t get your security advice from the same place that Rick does: Dan Aykroyd in Sneakers.

Who won? We’d love to hear from you. Weigh in with your opinion in the comments, or tweet @davejoh.

What other tech topics would you like to see Dave and Rick discuss? Send your ideas to Dave via Twitter @davejoh. And if you follow Dave, he promises to come to your home and explain something techy to your dad.

And hey, have a question about tech? You can talk directly to one of our nerds and get an answer right away.

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