Keeping the government's prying eyes at bay

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) last week took the wraps off a new Web site that is designed to help you keep the government from taking the wraps off your personal communications and stored data.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation last week took the wraps off a new Web site that is designed to help you keep the government from taking the wraps off your personal communications and stored data.

And here's a prediction: Someone's going to call it a threat to national security … Phooey.

From the site: "EFF has created this Surveillance Self-Defense site to educate the American public about the law and technology of government surveillance in the United States, providing the information and tools necessary to evaluate the threat of surveillance and take appropriate steps to defend against it. … Surveillance Self-Defense exists to answer two main questions: What can the government legally do to spy on your computer data and communications? And what can you legally do to protect yourself against such spying?"

Now if you're thinking that you have no need for such information because you're not doing anything wrong, well, you're right in the sense that this site is not meant for those whose faith in their benevolent government remains unshaken. It's more for those who have lived the past eight years, in particular, with their eyes wide open.

The site addresses surveillance issues as they relate to data that is in transmission, stored by you, or in the hands of a third party. For each data state there are sections that answer "What can the government do?" and "What can I do to protect myself?" They get into subjects such as reasonable expectations of privacy, the Fourth Amendment, subpoenas, search warrants, and one you hope not to need: search "incident to lawful arrest."

As for what you can do to protect yourself, topics include: develop a data retention and destruction policy; master the basics of data protection; learn how to use passwords properly; encrypt your data; and protect yourself against malware. In other words, the kind of stuff you do every day but your less tech-savvy friends may not understand.

There are also sections about the government's recent claims to expanded surveillance authority, as well as one about "defensive technologies" that may cause a stir in some circles.

The site is well organized, easily navigable, and written so as not to scare off the non-techies. There's a legal disclaimer noting that "this guide is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice."

Curiously missing is any sort or discussion forum, although there is a form for asking questions.

I've always liked that the EFF is an action-oriented advocacy group, witness the organization's highly successful Patent Busting Project. This effort fits in with its mission quite nicely and is worth a look … even if you have nothing to hide.

Depressing question: Is this optimistic or pessimistic?

A Harvard professor writing last week in the Wall Street Journal pegged the chances of our recession morphing into a full-blown depression at about 20%: "The bottom line is that there is ample reason to worry about slipping into a depression. There is a roughly one-in-five chance that U.S. GDP and consumption will fall by 10% or more, something not seen since the early 1930s."

Yes, I read the papers. And, yes, my layman's grasp of the macroeconomics does allow me to understand that such odds are reason for alarm.

Nevertheless, I found the idea that there's an 80% chance we won't all be selling apples on the street corner somewhat comforting.

And I am generally the pessimist's pessimist.

Your data is always safe with me. (Ha!) The address is buzz@nww.com.

Learn more about this topic

Civil liberties group asks Obama for tech changes

EFF, ACLU slam carrier immunity law

Senate committee approves surveillance bills

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