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.
TEXT SIZE - +
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

Multimedia Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
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.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid