Encryption 101: Keep the NSA out of Your Private Stuff

eHow Tech Blog


The value of encryption

Forbidden love affairs, broken promises, lingerie pictures, posing to show off your physique — the Washington Post reports that the National Security Agency is getting an eyeful of these kinds of intimate Internet communications.

Last week, Edward Snowden dropped this latest bombshell, revealing that the NSA is collecting much more than just metadata. We can argue whether this is right or wrong, necessary or a power grab, but arguing won’t keep hackers, snoops and advertisers out of your data. Face it: You’ve got private stuff to protect, and you need a way to keep it from prying eyes. The Internet offers one clear solution — encryption.

Encryption Basics

Encryption is a method of mathematically scrambling information so only you and your recipient can make sense of it. If someone intercepts an encrypted email, conversation or photo, it appears as gobbledygook. Unless the intercepting person has the key, it can take years or even decades to decode a single, powerfully-encrypted message.

To illustrate how encryption works, look at your email:

encrypting email


If you type “I love you!” in an email composition window, you can see the text clearly. But if you encrypt it, when you press “send,” the email goes out onto the Internet looking like this:

encrypted email example

That level of encryption is useful for thwarting Wi-Fi hackers and nosy email providers, but could it actually stop the NSA? The answer is a resounding “yes,” as confirmed by Ed Snowden himself in a recent Guardian interview. To everyone’s relief, our favorite whistleblower confirmed: “Encryption works. Properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on.”

Encryption works. So how do you get some?

The encryption of the past required a technical background and lot of elbow grease to set up, but today’s tools make it easy for everyone to get on board. Use one of these methods to get more encryption in your life, even if you’re a security novice.

Encrypt your email



PGP worksThe best email encryption is called Pretty Good Privacy, but don’t let the “pretty good” part fool you (it was a tongue-in-cheek joke, back in the day). PGP scrambles your message like a shredder that turns your data into enough confetti to fill the Grand Canyon a thousand times over.


While PGP is notorious for being difficult to set up and use, Katherine has been part of a team working to make it easier. Their project, StartMail, gives users the power of PGP encryption with a single click. StartMail is in beta now, but will be available later this year by invitation. (You can reserve an invitation at www.startmail.com.)


Switch to encrypted versions of the services you use most






Reset the Net

Now that people are wising up to surveillance, a bumper crop of new programs can help keep your chats, texts and even phone calls private. Our friends at Fight for the Future have put together a helpful Privacy Pack of encryption tools you can use to “reset the net.” You can download encrypted alternatives to your favorite tools at Reset the Net.


Encourage websites to use encryption, and support pro-encryption activists

HTTPS is the way to goWhen you see HTTPS in a website’s address bar, that’s your sign the website is foiling eavesdroppers by encrypting what you type and what the site displays to you. Sites that handle sensitive data like email and credit card numbers should always display the “https” (and often a lock) in the address bar. Not all sites are using this protocol yet, but activists groups like Access are working hard to get the whole Internet on board. You can support their efforts at Encrypt All the Things.

Encrypt your hard drive and portable devices

It’s easier than you think to encrypt your laptop and other portable devices that can be lost or stolen — or confiscated. While recent rumors caution that some hard-drive encryption programs may have been compromised, they still provide a barrier against snooping. Here are the official tools to encrypt your platform:

  • Windows: BitLocker
  • Mac: FileVault
  • Linux: Search for “Encrypted LVM” and Linux distribution name.

Refer to the instructions for your portable devices for their encryption options. Third-party applications are also available through services like the Google Play Store.

Fight the good fight

Modern encryption is not just about love affairs and intercepted dreams; it’s about equipping yourself for an information arms race that is fundamental to privacy and civil liberties.

Even if you’re gung-ho in support of the NSA, consider that sharing unencrypted information online is like showering in front of a picture window with the curtains wide open. Have some self respect, folks: Draw the shades!

Photo credits: Interactimages; Bigstock.com, Wikipedia, Katherine Albrecht; StartMail.com; ResetTheNet.org; Accessnow.org.

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