PRISM, Tor and Silkroad walk into a bar

  • What is the future of internet privacy?
  • Is our personal data in the hands of the US Government?
  • How can I protect my personal data?

It is by no means breaking news that the internet (as we’ve come to know and use it) is slowly but surely losing its anonymity. In fact it’s something we’ve known for quite a while and has really only been affirmed by the events that have occurred this year so far. For those that are out of loop 2013 has brought us the following news stories:

The leaked revelation of PRISM: a surveillance project run by the NSA (United States National Security Agency) as part of the Protect America act that intercepts data from services from companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL, and Skype.

The US Government takedown of SilkRoad: a massive online drug marketplace akin to eBay complete with a Buyer/Seller feedback system and thriving community of nearly 1 million registered users. The notorious site only accessible via the Tor network is said have handled transactions of over 9,519,664 Bitcoins during it’s operation from 2011 to 2013 amounting to a revenue of over 1.2 billion US dollars. On October 2nd 2013 the FBI seized the domain and shutdown the site.

 



 

 

PRISM was the first big reveal that changed our understanding of how governments control and monitor our internet usage. Following the PRISM leaks, the underground network Tor (short for The Onion Routing network) saw a massive influx of users to it’s secure, encrypted alternative to regular web browsing.

Without getting overly technical on you, Tor hides it’s users identities by routing them through a system of “Nodes” in a relay that encrypts and re-encrypts their data. By the time a Tor user reaches their destination (such as website address) their original data is so obscured that it can not be traced back. The downside to this service is largely the response time; Tor’s security is at the cost of response time. However, the security of Tor is such that even the NSA could not comprise it.

 





The US Government takedown of SilkRoad sent a shock through the system of Tor users who had, up until that point, believed the network to be completely out of grasp of any government organisation. While the FBI and the NSA still haven’t defeated the security of Tor’s routing system, the fact FBI were still able to claim and shut down the SilkRoad website and database dealt a huge blow to the network.

At this point you’re probably wondering what the implications are for you, the everyday user. Considering most of us aren’t drug lords, it begs the question: what is at stake here? and how will it affect me?

The answers to those questions are hard to predict considering that PRISM has only been in the limelight for a few months. The most recent report from The Washington Post regarding PRISM reveals that the NSA has been mining millions of email accounts from offshore servers (by offshore we’re referring to outside of the United States) in order to build a map of connections online. The extent of NSA’s surveillance is assumed to extend much beyond just emails and to envelop all services run by the following companies: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL, and Skype. How much of our data is being mined and captured is not transparently released and until more reports are leaked in the future, we will not know.

A more pressing issue we face now as a online society is how much of ourselves are we willing to put online? Taking into account there are clandestine projects such as PRISM building images of us based on our connections and usage, it’s no surprise that millions are flocking to secure networks such as Tor. However a few million people really only accounts for a small fraction of the internet’s traffic. In light of these events and reports that PRISM is becoming increasingly more evasive with it’s data mining, why is it that the overwhelming majority of internet users are not shifting to more secure browsing means?

I think the answer to this riddle lies within the need of an identity in order to feel connected. Tor offers security at the cost of an identity, by making ourselves anonymous we can bypass the reaches of PRISM. The downside to this that the use of services such as Facebook and Google are out of the question. While there are countless other online communities that don’t require your real name to communicate with users, our appetite for communication and connection is now at such a high level that basic forums can longer satisfy us.

Massively popular social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube ushered in a new era of online communication and changed the way we value online connections. Conversations moved from forums where your username was more indicative of your favourite television show rather than your name, to a Facebook page that promotes all the personal details you’re willing to give away. The emotional transaction of social media is simple: we offer our personal privacy in return for strong social connections. This is both the foundation for the massive success of sites like Facebook and also an explanation as to why users are not switching off these services, despite the knowledge that their data is open to surveillance.

Whether the intentions of PRISM are as clear cut as the US Government has claimed is up for debate. Nonetheless we now know that our personal data is not safe, in fact it is out there in the open and up for grabs and we should act accordingly.