Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


ProPublica

encryption

(Photo: Spartak/Shutterstock)

Privacy Tools: A Quick Guide to Encrypting the Data You Store and Transmit

• May 07, 2014 • 4:00 PM

(Photo: Spartak/Shutterstock)

Here are some techniques that anybody can use to protect their privacy online.

Ever since Edward Snowden revealed the inner secrets of the NSA, he has been urging Americans to use encryption to protect themselves from rampant spying.

“Encryption does work,” Snowden said, via a remote connection at the SXSW tech conference. “It is a defense against the dark arts for the digital realm.”

ProPublica has written about the NSA’s attempts to break encryption, but we don’t know for sure how successful the spy agency has been, and security experts still recommend using these techniques.

And besides, who doesn’t want to defend against the dark arts? But getting started with encryption can be daunting. Here are a few techniques that most people can use.

ENCRYPT THE DATA YOU STORE

This protects your data from being read by people with access to your computer.

  • Encrypt your hard drive so that if you lose your computer or you get hacked, your information will be safe. Most recent Apple Macintosh computers contain a built-in encryption system called FileVault that is simple to use. Some versions of Microsoft’s Windows 7 also contain a built-in encryption system called BitLocker. Another popular solution is the free, open-source program TrueCrypt, which can either encrypt individual files or entire partitions of your computer or an external hard drive.
  • Encrypt your smartphone’s hard drive. Yes—your smartphone has a hard drive much like your computer has. In fact, your phone probably contains as much—or more—sensitive information about you as your computer does. Apple doesn’t let you encrypt your smartphone’s hard drive or the files on it, though it allows encryption of your phone’s backup files on iTunes or iCloud. You can also use Find my iPhone to remotely “wipe,” or delete the data on your iPhone or iPad if it is lost or stolen. Google’s Android operating system lets you encrypt your phone hard drive.
  • Encrypt the data you store in the cloud. I use the SpiderOak encrypted cloud service. If an encrypted cloud service were somehow forced to hand over their servers, your data would still be safe, because it’s encrypted using a key stored only on your computer. However, this also means that if you lose your password, they can’t help you. The encrypted data would be unrecoverable.

ENCRYPT THE DATA YOU TRANSMIT

The Snowden revelations have revealed that U.S. and British spy agencies are grabbing as much unencrypted data as they can find as it passes over the Internet. Encrypting your data in transit can protect it against spy agencies, as well as commercial data gatherers.

  • Install HTTPS Everywhere on your Web browser. This encrypts your Web browsing sessions, protecting you from hackers and spy agencies that scoop up unencrypted traffic across the Internet. Not every site works properly with HTTPS Everywhere, though an increasing number do.
  • Use encrypted texting apps with friends who install the same apps on their phones. On the iPhone, Silent Circle and Wickr offer apps for encrypted texting. On Android, the TextSecure app encrypts texts in transit and when they are stored on your device.
  • Use the Off-the-Record Messaging protocol to encrypt your instant messaging conversations. You can still use your favorite instant-messaging service, such as Gchat or AIM, though you’ll need to use a software client that supports the Off-the-Record protocol. On Macs, free software called Adium can enable OTR chats, and on Windows, you can use Pidgin. Once you’ve set up OTR and gone through a simple verification step, you can IM as you usually do. Both parties have to use OTR for the encryption to work.
  • Use Gnu Privacy Guard to encrypt your email conversations. Like OTR, if you’re using GPG you’ll need the people you email with to use it as well in order to encrypt your conversations. I use free software called GPG Tools with Enigmail and Postbox. GPG Tools also works directly with Apple’s built-in Mail program.
  • GPG has some shortcomings—it’s difficult-to-impossible to use it with the mail program built into most smartphones, and you can’t use it easily with webmail like Gmail. (Although there are some new Web-based mail programs that use GPG called Mailvelope and StartMail that I haven’t had a chance to try yet.) The most difficult part of GPG is that, unlike the encrypted texting and instant messaging programs, you have to generate a secret key and keep it somewhere secure (usually on your computer or on a USB stick). This often means you can only send GPG mail when you have your key with you. Even so, it is incredibly satisfying once you send your first message and watch it transform into a block of numbers and letters when you click “encrypt.”

This post originally appeared on ProPublica as “Privacy Tools: Encrypt What You Can” and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Julia Angwin
Julia Angwin is a senior reporter at ProPublica. From 2000 to 2013, she was a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where she led a privacy investigative team that was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting in 2011 and won a Gerald Loeb Award in 2010.

More From Julia Angwin

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.