The curious case of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden has caused a media sensation as well as a political firestorm. But it's also forced Americans to reexamine their privacy rights and the use of technology.
“I think they've been shocked at the scope and magnitude of the program, what's being monitored, who's being monitored (and) how they're doing that monitoring," said Jason Martin, president and CEO of Secure DNA, one of the information technology companies taking part in the IT conference Shakacon V at the Neal S. Blaisdell Center.
However, Americans appear to fighting back against the NSA’s PRISM program, which mines internet and cell phone data for possible connections to terrorism. Mozilla, the nonprofit creators of web browser Firefox, shot back with an online petition against the government snooping. So far, more than 485,000 people have signed up.
"More and more now you see the general public sort of thinking like the security professionals (and) thinking, ‘Boy, I'm not happy with this. What do I do? What can I do to prevent people spying on me," said Deviant Ollam of The Core Group, another company taking part in Shakacon V.
Security experts say it’s nearly impossible to guarantee privacy while surfing the internet, but there are some safeguards available at little to no cost. Martin says encryption technology is one of the most effective ways to use the internet without the fear that someone is eavesdropping.
“Obviously, if you’re using things like social networks, Google platforms, they are in the business of mining data, (and) if that data is there the government is going to be able to get it,” explained Martin. “I think there’s going to be a bigger market now for consumer-based privacy services, search engines that won’t store your data or go encrypted.”
One such search engine, StartPage.com, guarantees user data won't be stored and tracking cookies won't be used.
"Unfortunately, it takes a scandal like PRISM to wake people up to the erosion of privacy", Harvard-trained privacy expert Dr. Katherine Albrecht, who helped develop StartPage, said in a new release earlier this month. “We already serve nearly 3 million private searches each day, and we expect that number to grow as people seek shelter from search engines that store and share their private information."
But experts say protecting your cell phone data from prying eyes, or computer programs for that matter, is much more difficult to accomplish. Still, it’s not impossible if you’re willing to take the time and effort.
Ollam says one of the most effective methods is to subscribe to a data-only plan from your cell phone provider, and then download software that allows you to bypass cellular networks.
"There's an app called TigerText, (and) there are other apps that do secure text messaging, secure emailing,” said Ollam. “You can actually setup what's called SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) for your calls, (where) you can route your calls sort of off the phone network, but not really on the phone network."
Experts say how much privacy one seeks in the cyber age depends on how far a person is willing to go to setup the necessary digital connections. And although most American will never ever attract the attention of the federal government like an Edward Snowden, simple safeguards can prove to be a powerful deterrent against criminals.
“Somebody who wants to put a lot of things on my Visa bill is what I'm much more concerned about," said Ollam.
Shakacon V will hold two full days of workshops with featured speakers on Thursday and Friday. Registration will be accepted until Wednesday evening. For more information visit www.shakacon.org.