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Internet users shift habits amid US spying

Options include new browsers, more encryption

Josh Scott helped a computer user who did not want to be identified during a Cryptoparty on Web security in Dallas.LM Otero/Associated Press

NEW YORK — In Louisiana, the wife of a former soldier is scaling back on Facebook posts and considering unfriending old acquaintances, worried an innocuous joke or long-lost associate might one day land her in a government probe. In California, a college student encrypts chats and e-mails, saying he's not planning anything sinister but shouldn't have to sweat snoopers. And in Canada, a lawyer is rethinking the data products he uses to ensure his clients' privacy.

As the attorney, Chris Bushong, put it: ''Who wants to feel like they're being watched?''

News of the US government's secret surveillance programs that targeted phone records and information transmitted on the Internet has done more than spark a debate about privacy. Some are changing their online habits as they reconsider some basic questions about today's interconnected world. Among them: How much should I share and how should I share it?


Some say they want to take preventative measures in case such programs are expanded. Others are looking to send a message — not just to the US government but to the Internet companies that collect so much personal information.

''We all think that nobody's interested in us, we're all simple folk,'' said Doan Moran of Alexandria, La. ''But you start looking at the numbers and the phone records . . . it makes you really hesitate.''

Last month former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents revealing that the National Security Agency, as part of its antiterrorism efforts, had collected the phone records of millions of Americans. A second NSA program called PRISM forces major Internet firms to turn over the detailed contents of communications such as e-mails, video chats, pictures, and more.

Moran's husband, an ex-Army man, already was guarded about using social media. Now she is looking through her Facebook ''friends'' to consider whom to delete, because she can't know what someone in her network might do in the future. Moran said she's uneasy because she feels unclear about what the NSA is keeping and how deep the agency's interests might go.


In Toronto, attorney Bushong let a free trial of Google's business applications expire after learning about PRISM, under which the NSA seized data from Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, and AOL. Bushong is moving to San Diego in August to launch a tax planning firm and said he wants to be able to promise confidentiality and respond sufficiently should clients question his firm's data security. He switched to a Canadian Internet service provider for e-mail and is considering installing his own document servers.

''I'd like to be able to say that I've taken all reasonable steps to ensure that they're not giving up any freedoms unnecessarily,'' he said.

Across the Internet, computer users are talking about changes small and large — from strengthening passwords and considering encryption to ditching cellphones and using cash over credit cards. The conversations play out daily on Reddit, Twitter, and other networks, and have spread to offline life with so-called Cryptoparty gatherings.

Information technology professional Josh Scott hosts a monthly Cryptoparty in Dallas to show people how to operate online more privately.

''You have to decide how extreme you want to be,'' Scott said.

Christopher Shoup, a college student from Victorville, Calif., has been encouraging friends to converse on Cryptocat, a private program that promises users they can chat ''without revealing messages to a third party.'' Shoup isn't worried that his own behavior could draw scrutiny but said the mere idea that the government could retrieve his personal communications ''bothers me as an American.''


''I don't think I should have to worry,'' he said.

Cryptocat said it nearly doubled its number of users in two days after Snowden revealed himself as the source of leaks about the NSA's programs. Two search engine companies billed as alternatives to Google, Bing, and Yahoo are also reporting significant surges in use.

Representatives for Google, Yahoo, and PalTalk, companies named in a classified PowerPoint presentation leaked by Snowden, declined to comment. Microsoft, Apple, and AOL officials did not return messages. Previously, the companies issued statements emphasizing that they aren't voluntarily handing over user data to the government.

In Tokyo, American expat Peng Zhong responded to the spying news by swapping everything from his default search engine and Web browser to his computer's operating system. Zhong, an interface designer, then built a website to help others switch, too.

Called, the site got more than 200,000 hits in less than a week after Zhong announced it on social networks.