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Helping to keep government's prying eyes at bay

Electronic Frontier Foundation announces new initiative

By Paul McNamara on Tue, 03/03/09 - 1:00pm.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation today has taken the wraps off a new Web site 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 before the day is out. ... Phooey.

(2010's 25 Geekiest 25th Anniversaries)

From the Surveillance Self-Defense site:

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (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 (SSD) 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 lived the past eight years, in particular, with their eyes wide open.

From the press release announcing SSD:

"Despite a long and troubling history in this country of the government abusing its surveillance powers, most Americans know very little about how the law protects them or about how they can take steps to protect themselves against government surveillance," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston.  "The Surveillance Self-Defense project offers citizens a legal and technical toolkit with tips on how to defend themselves in case the government attempts to search, seize, subpoena or spy on their most private data."

More from the site:

After an introductory discussion of how you should think about making security decisions - it's all about risk management - we'll be answering those two questions for three types of data:

First, we're going to talk about the threat to the data stored on your computer posed by searches and seizures by law enforcement, as well as subpoenas demanding your records.

There a section called "What can the government do?" gets into: the Fourth Amendment; reasonable expectations of privacy; search warrants; "sneak and peek" search warrants; warrantless searches; search incident to lawful arrest; and subpoenas.

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.

Second, we're going to talk about the threat to your data on the wire - that is, your data as it's being transmitted - posed by wiretapping and other real-time surveillance of your telephone and Internet communications by law enforcement.

Third, we're going to describe the information about you that is stored by third parties like your phone company and your Internet service provider, and how law enforcement officials can get it.

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. 

(Update, Wed., 3:40 p.m.: The "Surveillance Self-Defense" site has been down for more than an hour, prompting almost instantaneous/light-hearted conspiracy theories in the comments below ... and me to ask EFF what's up. Their reply: "We're having a server issue (more traffic than we expected). It's being worked on right now, and hopefully will be up within the hour.")   

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