Edward Snowden: is our Privacy at Stake?

Edward Snowden is one of the world’s most famous whistleblowers. In 2013 he leaked highly classified information about the NSA program called “Optic Nerves.” NSA is a global surveillance program run by American and British spy agencies (MacAskill). The programs are said to take webcam images every five minutes from Yahoo users’ video chats, and store them for future use. It is estimated that between 3% and 11% of the images captured contained “undesirable nudity” (MacAskill). To put Snowden’s claim into perspective, that is over 200 million people or roughly 3% of the world’s population, and that is only Yahoo users. This is a prime example of how certain technology is invading our privacy.

One source of technology that has many people worried is smart speakers, such as Alexa and Google Home. Most people know what a smart speaker is or have heard of it but for those who have not, it is a “voice commanded wireless speaker with an integrated virtual assistant that offers interactive actions and hands-free activation” with the help of one ‘hot word or wake word” (Segan). For example, Alexa’s wake word is “Alexa” and Google Homes’ words are “Hey, Google” or “Ok, Google.” According to Privacy International, “Smart speakers are constantly active. They listen in short snippets (a few seconds) in order to detect whether the ‘wake word’ has been used and then delete the information if the word is not detected.”

Unfortunately, it seems this is not always the case. According to “Privacy International,” “there are multiple stories about devices wrongly detecting the wake word, recording unexpectedly, speaking when a wake word has not been used, and even sending audios to strangers.” Amazon and Google claim that the devices do not store the information they hear unless they detect the wake word, but this is not completely true. TJ McCure states, “Amazon employees can listen in to your Amazon request and interactions. He then explains a few methods of how to protect yourself from this. The most common method to silence these devices is via the manual, physical button. “On Amazon Echo, when you press the microphone button, the external ring glows red and the device is not capable of listening, or at least that is what we think. Google Home has a button on the side and the four dots on the top light up when disabled” (McCue, TJ). TJ McCue then talks about another setting that you can change to stop allowing Alexa to use your information to help develop new features. Everyone that owns a smart speaker should change this setting. After all, it is not right for companies to take your information for their benefit without your consent.

Another form of technology that may be exposing your privacy is your computer or laptop. According to Dylan Curran, “government security agencies like the NSA can also have access to your devices through in-built backdoors.” What this means is that they can tap into your phone calls, read your messages and steal your files whenever they would like. They can also access your laptop or phone camera and seize your images and video calls. Do not be overwhelmed though. One simple way to remedy them taking over your video camera is to simply cover it up. A simple piece of tape or a sticky note will work. By doing this you can protect yourself from potential hackers or government agencies from spying on you.

That takes care of your webcam, but what about your phone or computer? Hackers could still break into your software. One way that hackers beat the system is by using an application called Metasploit on the ethical hacking platform Kali. “This application uses Adobe Reader 9 (which over 60% of users still use) to open a listener on the user’s computer. They alter the PDF with the program and send the user the malicious file. After it is opened they have total control over your device remotely” ( Dylan Curran). One way to help protect yourself is by using a VPN on your computer, laptop, or phone. A VPN encrypts your information before it is sent across the internet, making it unreadable to anyone who interprets it. If that does not stop and make you think maybe this will: surveillance cameras in streets and shops may be tracking you as well. According to Dylan Curran with The Guardian, there is a website called InSeCam that allows people to watch surveillance cameras free of charge. It even allows you to search for cameras by location, city, and time zone.

Now let’s talk a little bit more about Edward Snowden. On June 17, 2013, Edward as many say blew the whistle. He exposed top secret information about NSA to the public through interviews with The Guardian. Then on September 17, 2019, Permanent Record was published. The book is an autobiography of Snowden’s life leading up to his exposure of the NSA. Snowden says he exposed the NSA because he believed that the people had a right to know who the NSA was. According to The Guardian, some privacy campaigners have expressed disappointment regarding how things have changed. Snowden replied by saying, “Look back before 2013 and look at what has happened since. Everything changed. The most important change,” he said, “was public awareness. The government and the corporate sector preyed on our ignorance. But now we know. People are aware now. People are still powerless to stop it but we are trying.”

So after all this talk about our privacy, do we have any? In 2015 Congress passed the U.S.A. Freedom Act, which prohibits the bulk collection of phone records. Now the government must get a court warrant to look at your phone records (The Guardian). This was a big win for privacy campaigners. So to protect ourselves we should do the following. One, cover our laptop or phone cameras at all times, when they are not being used; this will protect you from an unwanted criminal or government spy checking in on you whenever they please. Two, encrypt your data by using a VPN. VPNs are easy to find and install, and although you can pay for higher quality VPNs, there are many free reliable VPNs out there ready for download. Finally, use companies with encrypted browsers; this will protect your information from being intercepted into the wrong hands even if you do not have a VPN on your computer/phone. Changing your password frequently is also an easy way to protect yourself from being hacked.

To conclude, when it comes to privacy, every little bit counts. Edward Snowden put his life on the line to inform the people of the world of the government’s actions. Though measures are being taken to protect your privacy, you should not settle for any less because your privacy matters. In a world without privacy, the government would have everything you had done from the time you were a baby recorded and with just one step out of line you could find yourself in a world of trouble. By following these tips, you may sleep a little easier knowing you did your part to protect yourself from hackers and identity theft.

Works Cited

  1. Curran, Dylan. “Are Your Phone Camera and Microphone Spying on You? | Dylan Curran.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 6 Apr. 2018, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/06/phone-camera-microphone-spying.
  2. Green, Lloyd. “Permanent Record Review: Edward Snowden Writes in 50 Shades of Grey.” The Guardian, Guardian News, and Media, 22 Sept. 2019, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/sep/22/permanent-record-review-edward-snowden-memoir.
  3. MacAskill, Ewen, et al. “NSA Files Decoded: Edward Snowden’s Surveillance Revelations Explained.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 1 Nov. 2013, www.theguardian.com/world/interactive/2013/nov/01/snowden-nsa-files-surveillance-revelations-decoded#section/1.
  4. MacAskill, Ewen, and Alex Hern. “Edward Snowden: ‘The People Are Still Powerless, but Now They’re Aware’.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 4 June 2018, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jun/04/edward-snowden-people-still-powerless
  5. MacAskill, Ewen, and Laurence Topham. “ They Wanted Me Gone’: Edward Snowden Tells of Whistleblowing, His AI Fears and Six Years in Russia.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2019/sep/13/edward-snowden-interview-whistleblowing-russia-ai-permanent-record.
  6. McCue, TJ. “Alexa Is Listening All The Time: Here’s How To Stop It.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 23 Apr. 2019, www.forbes.com/sites/tjmccue/2019/04/19/alexa-is-listening-all-the-time-heres-how-to-stop-it/#6ec186ad5e2d.
  7. Molina, Brett. “Yes, Webcams Can Spy on You. This One Simple Thing Can Prevent It.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 10 Mar. 2017, www.usatoday.com/story/tech/talkingtech/2017/03/10/webcam-security-cover-wikileaks-comey-zuckerberg/98953462/.
  8. Segan, Sascha. “Amazon Echo vs. Google Home: Which Smart Speaker Is Best?” PCMAG, PCMag, 19 July 2019, www.pcmag.com/news/amazon-echo-vs-google-home-which-smart-speaker-is-best.
  9. “The Mystery of the Amazon Echo Data.” Privacy International, privacyinternational.org/news-analysis/2819/mystery-amazon-echo-data.   
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