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How to keep data away from prying eyes

If the polls are to be believed, 56 percent of you will soon be flipping to the Sports section. That’s the percentage of Americans who don’t mind that huge amounts of our phone call records and Internet activities are being tracked by the government. And maybe they’re right. Lots of people have nothing to hide.

But I sure do, though I’m not worried about the cops. Cellphone carriers, Internet companies like Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp., and companies with something to sell are all minding too much of my business. So I’m always looking for good ways to cruise below the radar.


The easiest privacy threats to avoid are those pesky tracking cookies, which record all the websites you visit. These are usually installed by marketing companies that don’t know your identity. But Facebook does, and it uses tracking cookies. According to news accounts, the National Security Agency is tapping into Facebook’s servers — including, perhaps, your tracking cookie records.

So get rid of them. Browser add-ons like Ghostery and DoNotTrackMe will keep them off your desktop machine. Ghostery makes a browser for the iPhone that lets you easily delete such cookies. For Android devices, there is a product called Self-Destructing Cookies, an add-on for Firefox that trashes cookies automatically.

But you’re still on the spies’ radar. Remember that every online device carries a network address that can reveal its location and the user’s identity. To surf anonymously, you must cover your tracks.

Scientists for the Naval Research Laboratories found a way. They created software called Tor that routes all Internet traffic through dozens of server computers, making it nearly impossible to identify the computer that sent the initial data request.

Tor software is freely available online, though setting it up can be a hassle.

I had the best experience with the Onion Browser, an option for Apple Inc.’s iPhone that routes all Web page requests through the Tor network. On my Android phone, I installed an app called Orbot, then a browser called Orweb, which Tor-ifies all Web activities.


Tor has proven a lifesaver for human rights activists in repressive countries like China and Iran. But because it bounces the data off so many servers, the Tor network moves like mud. I can’t bring myself to use it for casual surfing; I’ve got enough gray hairs.

Next, you’ll want to ensure that your voice and text messages are not intercepted.

The feds are supposed to get a warrant for that, but if that doesn’t make you feel better, there are ways to scramble your voice.

For about $120 per year, iPhone apps such as Silent Circle offer voice-call encryption.

I tried a free alternative for Android devices called RedPhone. It worked, but sound quality was pretty dreadful. Besides, both parties on the call must use the same software. So this kind of voice encryption is useful only with close friends or coconspirators.

The simplest solution is to use Microsoft’s Skype Internet calling service. The software is free, and millions of us carry it on our computers and smartphones. Sound quality is generally excellent, and Skype calls are automatically encrypted.

In fact, Skype call security is so good that the FBI is begging Congress to force Microsoft Corp. and other Internet phone companies to add “back doors” so they can listen in. If that ever happens, Skype will lose much of its appeal for privacy buffs. But for now, it’s a good choice.


You can also get crypto tools for your text messages.

TextSecure, made by the same people who do RedPhone, is a free text scrambler for use on Android devices; Black SMS, designed for iPhones, costs 99 cents. And of course, there’s Skype, which has text messaging that’s encrypted just as its voice calls are.

By now, the paranoid minority of readers who care about privacy might be feeling pretty good. Well, snap out of it. Certainly, you can take steps to reduce your exposure to government and commercial snoops, but it’s well-nigh impossible to fend them off entirely.

Turn on your cellphone and the phone company knows where you are. Got a smartphone? Unless you’ve turned off its tracking service, Google or Apple or Microsoft or BlackBerry know exactly where it is.

Log onto Google or share a “like” on Facebook and you’ve opened a file on yourself, one that may never close. Unless you live in a cave, there’s no way to completely avoid the electronic surveillance that pervades our lives. But there’s no law against making it a little tougher to spy on us. Not yet, anyway.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.