The Unsung Heroes Protecting Our Online Privacy
You might not know it, but there’s an entire hidden world that has dedicated itself to safeguarding our online privacy and freedom on the World Wide Web.
It might feel symbolic, then, that many of these organizations fly under the radar, but there’s every reason to wish they had a better publicist. To put it simply, protecting our privacy has never been more important than it is right now, and most of us aren’t even doing the bare minimum to protect ourselves. We’re living in a post-Snowden world, where concerns about credit card fraud seem almost quaint alongside more modern forms of intrusion.
So let’s take a moment to recognize some of the companies that are working to make the Internet a safer place for the rest of us. With very few exceptions, these companies get by almost exclusively on donations from people like you and me. And while they’ve chosen to make their wares available for free, this is not to say that they’re developed without considerable expense.
The Onion Router
The Onion Router, perhaps better known as TOR, is practically a household name in online privacy. You don’t need to know how it works, and I probably couldn’t explain it even if I wanted to, but the short version is that its quirky name wasn’t chosen arbitrarily; like the onion for which it’s named, TOR shrouds your web traffic in layers of encryption.
Following the Snowden leaks, usage of the TOR network doubled and pushed their infrastructure to the breaking point. The good news is that it helped spread public awareness of our almost total lack of protection online. You can read up on Tor here.
Whereas TOR uses standalone programs that run alongside your operating system, Tails is something altogether different: it’s an entire operating system unto itself. It was designed to boot from a USB device of your choosing and it effectively erases the breadcrumb trail you’d normally leave on the Web.
Tails (The Amnesiac Incognito Live System) even received a glowing review from Edward Snowden himself, as well as from Laura Poitras, who collaborated with Snowden while the two broke the story of global surveillance in the form of a documentary called Citizenfour.
You can read more about Tails, and donate to the cause, at the official website of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.
Open Whisper Systems
It’s fairly easy to get caught up in the walled garden of your favorite smartphone or tablet manufacturer; after all, the baked-right-in messaging, email, and phone apps are, conveniently, pre-installed on your device of choice.
The only problem is that these official apps, while not exactly a security risk in their own right, are still susceptible to particularly strong-willed snoopers.
Open Whisper Systems was one of the first to acknowledge this problem and has since introduced a number of iOS and Android apps (Redphone, Textsecure, and Signal) to provide strong encryption for the things you do most frequently on your phone, such as texting and making calls. Even if you haven’t heard of OWS, you’d probably heard of WhatsApp, which announced recently that it would be shoring up its encryption standards with Textsecure integration. You can read more about OWS and their apps here.
If you’re reading this, you probably have at least a passing familiarity with SSL, or Secure Sockets Layer. This is the cryptographic protocol that’s used by more than 60% of all websites, and OpenSSL is the organization that provides it.
You might be surprised to learn that OpenSSL, despite its global reach, is overseen by only a small handful of programmers. In keeping with human nature, it took a catastrophe (2014’s Heartbleed vulnerability) for this company to get the attention it deserves. OpenSSL has, in the months since Heartbleed, received generous funding from important tech companies, buy they’re always grateful for private donations as well. You can take part here.
“Nothing to Hide”
For reasons I can’t really explain, people have long been defending attacks on our privacy by claiming that only somebody with “something to hide” would object to online surveillance. The truth is that we all have an obligation to stand up for our right to surf the web freely and anonymously. The companies above, and many more, are helping to make that happen.