Anti-spy technology remains hot a year after NSA leaks
More than a year after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked secret documents describing the breadth and depth of US surveillance, policy makers continue to debate the legal framework for such monitoring.
Yet a number of technology startups are blazing ahead to create a range of products that promise to restore people’s privacy online. Silent Circle, WhisperSystems, and Wickr offer a variety of services, from private instant messaging to secure data storage to encrypted phone calls. Other companies, such as Blackphone, have focused on creating a secure smartphone for the privacy-conscious.
And even newer ideas are in the offing. A small Silicon Valley technology firm, for example, has designed a plug-in black box for smartphones that can encrypt a voice call on the fly and is seeking funding on Kickstarter. Called JackPair, the box can be connected between a smartphone and the user’s headphones and encrypt conversations with another JackPair user, said Jeffrey Chang, founder of AWIT Systems, the firm behind the product.
“There are a lot of countries that do wiretapping all the time, but they don’t have the best infrastructure or knowledge,” he said. “This will be helpful for people in those nations.”
JackPair is part of a wider movement that has struggled against a darker facet of the Internet—the ease with which it can be monitored. Starting with digital-rights supporters in the US in the 1990s to the more recent concerns of activists and protesters in other nations, privacy has become important to a growing number of people.
For Chang, who grew up in Taiwan in the 1970s and 1980s during the first steps of the island’s democratic movement, privacy has never been guaranteed. In 1987, the government lifted martial law, and after a turbulent decade, Taiwan had its first democratic election in 1996. Yet, Taiwanese know that surveillance is the norm, Chang said.
“Everyone knows that your phone is tapped and you don’t talk about sensitive stuff,” he said, pointing to recent news, not just in Taiwan and the US, but other countries as well. Technology can help people communicate freely despite such monitoring, he said.
For tech-savvy users, there has always been a range of options. The Guardian Project, for example, aims to create a suite of apps for Android phones to secure communications.
JackPair uses open-source components, such as the Codec 2 library for low-bitrate speech encoding and Salsa20 for encrypting the voice data. A user can start encrypting anytime during a conversation, can verify that no one has intercepted the critical key exchange, and does not have to rely on a company’s goodwill, Chang said.
“When we made the technical design, we had this in mind: That someday someone might knock on the door and ask for access to the communications,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that we could release the details online and not affect people’s security.”
Bruce Schneier, a former cryptographer and noted security expert, applauded efforts to make communications more secure, but cautioned that encryption is not a solution to targeted surveillance.
“Encryption protects against bulk collection, that’s its job,” he said. “Against targeted collection, however, the NSA is going to hack into your computer, and whatever you are using is not going to matter.”
Yet, the broader trend in products designed to help consumer’s add-on privacy to their daily lives could pressure lawmakers to focus more closely on policy, technology and freedom in the digital age. Even with technology, better laws and protections are needed, Schneier said.
“Technology can subvert policy, and policy can subvert technology–either one can trump the other,” he said. “For real security, you need both.”
Listing image by Courtesy of AWIT Systems