News / Science & Technology

How To Shield From Internet Snooping

Computer screen shows a password attack in progress at computer security training program in Northfield, Vermont.
Computer screen shows a password attack in progress at computer security training program in Northfield, Vermont.
George Putic
When news broke about U.S. government agencies collecting metadata about its citizens’ Internet and phone communications, many were surprised by its scope.  The surveillance covered a vast number of Internet messages and phone calls.  The government did not deny the action but pointed out that the collected data contained, not the substance of the communication, but the so-called metadata.

Although many suspected that U.S. intelligence agencies were collecting data about suspicious messages and calls, it was assumed that the actions were covered by court orders and aimed at specific targets.  But reports say, during a specific time period, practically all e-mail messages were intercepted and their metadata stored for possible later analysis.

Government agencies claim that they collect only metadata and not the content of intercepted messages.  But KoolSpan Chief Technology Officer Bill Supernor says metadata holds very valuable information for the intelligence services.

“Metadata is the generic term used to describe information that describes information.  So the metadata of an e-mail may be who was it sent to, who it was from, the date, what size the message is," said Supernor.  "Many e-mails were passed through a number of POPs [Post Office Protocol].  A number of different e-mail relay stations and that kind of information may be regarded to be metadata.”

Why is communication over the Internet not private?  If computers each have their own addresses, how can e-mail be read by someone else?

Supernor says to understand this we have to go to the beginnings of the Internet.

“When the Internet was first designed and envisioned, it was envisioned as a system for open communication between people at different universities," said Supernor.  "And over time it grew into a system for sharing information between defense related organizations."

So at first, security was not the primary concern because nobody thought the Internet would be used for private communication among people, companies and government officials.  Security was added later, he says, almost as an afterthought.

Another problem, says Supernor, stems from the networked nature of the Internet.

“Networks imply lines of communication connected at hubs or endpoints," he said.  "And any one of those hubs or endpoints can be a point at which information could be pulled off and snooped upon or intercepted by both friendly and unfriendly parties.”

Supernor adds that storing metadata requires considerably less space than storing the content of the messages.  He says metadata is much easier to index and catalogue, but only so much can be done with that information.

Reports indicate U.S. intelligence agencies also collected metadata of phone conversations, with information about originators and receivers of calls, duration of calls and possibly even the types of phones used.  Supernor says that in the case of cellular, it can show which cell tower the phones used at the time a call was placed, received, and the time the call ended on either phone.

“The metadata can contain some pretty interesting information in terms of the physical location," said Supernor.  "And if anybody ever used some of the mapping applications on the smartphone, with the GPS turned off, that’s a lot of information that’s available to know about, right down to the city block where a person was located.”

Intelligence agencies are presumably after terrorists and criminals.  But what about other hackers who may be after financial and other personal data?

Supernor advises “the best thing you can do to defend yourself is pick random passwords, so nothing that involves your cats or dogs or car, or the names of any of these things - your address, your family, any of the kinds of things that appear in social media.  It’s such a weapon in the hand of the bad guys.”

In the case of cell phones or smartphones, Supernor says one should especially guard valuable information such as Social Security numbers and credit card numbers.

”SMS is something I would not use for exchanging secure information," he said.  "That transport is just not a safe transport to use for that kind of information.”

Bill Supernor says that the Internet is not a secure means of communication and strongly advises encryption of messages containing sensitive information.  This is especially true for commercial companies and organizations that want to make sure that the private information they share stays behind an impenetrable screen.

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs