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Five Ways to Have a Chat Behind Big Brother's Back

Since Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA’s mass surveillance of Americans, interest in cryptography has been piqued. That’s fine if you’re a nerd, but what about Grandma’s privacy? Luckily there are fairly simple ways to communicate privately.

Just be warned, if you use encryption, the NSA has reportedly decided it can hold on to your data indefinitely, whether you’re American or not.

Chat: Cryptocat is a free, open-source chat application available in 32 languages. Like other instant messengers, Crytpocat lets you chat in real time with other people online — but this service is encrypted. You can download Cryptocat for Chrome, Safari, Firefox or the Mac. [Link]

Email: Concerned that Google might be sharing your information with the man (despite protestations to the contrary)? You can encrypt your Gmail with one click using Secure Gmail, an open-source Chrome extension. According to Lifehacker, “Once installed, you’ll see a lock icon right next to the ‘Compose’ button in Gmail. Click it to enter ‘secure compose’ mode, where your message text will be encrypted before you send it, and no drafts are saved to Google’s servers, so you don’t have unencrypted data at rest. You’ll be prompted to enter a password that the recipient will have to use to decrypt the message when they get it.” If you don’t use Chrome or Gmail, try Mailvelope. [Link]

Phone/Text/Email: One of the most famous names in encryption is Phil Zimmermann, the father of Pretty Good Privacy. Zimmermann now has a company called Silent Circle, which offers a range of cryptographic services to everyone from regular humans to corporate stooges to aspiring mercenaries. Want to have a truly private phone call? This may be your best bet. The catch: Silent Circle charges a fee. [Link]

Text Message/Video Chat: Apple fanatics may have something to crow about here. Although the tech company was on that famous list of PRISM cooperators, Apple has said it can’t snoop on customers using its FaceTime and iMessage services even if it wanted to. That’s because both, according to the company, use end-to-end encryption by default. Those services are available to anyone using Apple phones, tablets or computers. [Link]

Web: No matter how you browse the Internet or what you do with it, one of the best ways to hide your identity and safeguard your privacy is to use a VPN, or Virtual Private Network. This essentially routes all of your Internet traffic through a third party that anonymizes your traffic for you. Unfortunately, a good VPN typically costs money, and you have to hope that the company providing the service is both honest and willing to stand up to government pressure. Some VPNs advertise that they intentionally do not keep server logs, so they cannot comply with government requests for private information. VPN setup can be tricky for the not-so-tech-savvy. One service that makes connecting fairly simple is Privateinternetaccess.

Note: The point of this article is not to help people safely engage in illegal activity. Please don’t do that. Rather, I hope these services can help decent people hold on to their Fourth Amendment right to privacy in an age when corporations and the government are conspiring to spy on everyone.

Peter Z. Scheer
Managing Editor
Peter Scheer grew up in the newspaper business, spending family vacations with his mother at newspaper editors' conferences, enjoying daycare in editorial departments and begrudgingly reviewing his father's…
Peter Z. Scheer

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