Keeping Your Email Private

Keyboard w Gloves

By David Kasper

I don’t consider myself an expert on encryption methods and how they work, or even how effective they are in securing online privacy.  But I’ve become concerned enough about government and corporate spying that I set out to explore how to keep prying eyes out of my email correspondence and web activity.  I discovered that it is easier and more effective than you might think to send and receive email that is encrypted and decrypted on your own computer, making the ability to read it in transit impossible.  By all accounts, the encryption standard called Open PGP is unbreakable, even by NSA’s cryptographers and super computers.

I’ve already started using it, and I’ve been encouraging others that I correspond with to use it as well.  I know there are those who say that encrypting your correspondence will attract more attention from the NSA and increase the likelihood of being targeted.  That may be true, but for many of us involved in media work, especially on controversial political subjects, the likelihood that government snoops can spy at will on our correspondence is worth protecting against.

The use of encryption has grown dramatically since the disclosures of NSA spying by Edward Snowden.  Activists, lawyers, researchers and businesses rely on it to keep their communications private.  So do many journalists whose government sources are drying up for fear of being identified and targeted for harassment and prosecution

We may be heading for a time when most, if not all email on the Internet will be user-encrypted by default.  You have to wonder why tech companies have not already built end-to-end encryption into their email programs, since the technology has existed for more than twenty years.  Unfortunately, the prospect that anyone will reign in the NSA’s rampant abuses is tenuous and remote.  In the meantime, encryption makes sense for anyone who doesn’t want their life to be an open book available to the government.

The Open PGP encryption system has become the most widely-used standard, because of it’s proven security and relative ease of use.  The original PGP or “Pretty Good Privacy” was invented in the early 90’s by Phil Zimmerman so that he and other anti-nuclear activists could communicate securely.  PGP was eventually sold to Symantec Corp. which adapted and re-named it to Symantec Encryption, now selling for $175+, a steep price for individual consumers.

Fortunately, software using the Open PGP standard is available for free download under the name GnuPG or GPG.  It is compatible with Symantec or anything using the Open PGP standard.  It is also designed to integrate with existing email software on Mac and Windows computers.

Without going into a lot of detail, here is basically how it works.  After you install the GnuPG software, it will generate a pair of keys, one public key and one private key.  The public key is not secret.  In fact many users make it available to anyone who wants to look it up in an online directory.  The private key is secret and known only to you.  To send an encrypted email, you get the recipients public key by looking it up and adding it to your “keychain.”  You click a button to encrypt the message and send it.  Your recipient who has the corresponding private key is the only one who can see it.  It all happens instantly in the background.  Your recipient opens the message and it appears already decrypted.

If you’re using webmail, encryption is not so easy or effective.  There are services such as Hushmail and Scramble that provide encrypted webmail, but the content can still be unlocked by them.  When Canadian authorities demanded that Hushmail turn over user encryption keys, Hushmail complied under threat of prosecution.

Of course your computer is vulnerable if there is spyware or some other intrusion that allows a snooper to monitor your computer screen or log your keystrokes.  There are also other issues to consider if you want to be fully protected, including how to keep all of your internet activity private.  But making your email content completely secure while in transit closes the worst vulnerability.

Former NSA Director Confronted on Surveillance Abuse

Duke Talk 3-SFrom left: David Schanzer (moderator), Barton Gellman & Michael Hayden.

Former Director of the National Security Agency Michael Hayden was confronted about his complicity in illegal warrantless surveillance at a recent public event hosted by Duke University.  He appeared at the event with Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman to discuss the controversy over leakers and whistleblowers.

Hayden was Director of the NSA following 9/11 during the Bush administration when the decision was made to secretly spy on American citizens without the required warrants – a blatant violation of the FISA surveillance law and the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.  Violations of are punishable by a $10,000 fine and five years imprisonment for each infraction.  Hayden and others complicit in the illegal surveillance have never been prosecuted or even investigated for their crimes.

Hayden left the government 2009 for a top position with a national security contractor.  He now appears frequently on TV talk shows as an expert on the current NSA controversy, basically defending government surveillance practices.

During the question and answer session following the Duke talk, I asked Hayden how he justified turning the NSA on the American population, a question that is never asked by the friendly media outlets he normally appears on.  In his response, he lays out his version of how and why NSA undertook its warrantless surveillance, and why he thinks it is legal and necessary.  Barton Gellman fills in some of the history of how it happened.

Hayden is resorting to the same defense that the officials who created and ordered the secret US torture program successfully used to escape any accountability:  That he is off the hook because government attorneys told him it was OK.  Using the same kind of twisted logic that Justice Department lawyers concocted to protect torturers with the infamous “torture memos,” Hayden argues that what he did is lawful because the President as Commander in Chief has expansive authorities during wartime.

At one point in the discussion Hayden called Edward Snowden a “hunter” who set out from the beginning to find NSA secrets and expose them, not a whistleblower who acted out of concern for wrongdoing that he discovered.  Like other pro-NSA officials, Hayden insists that Snowden, instead of going public, should have brought his concerns to appropriate authorities and Congressional intelligence committees.  One only has to look at the experience of Thomas Drake and other NSA whistleblowers, to know that going through “official channels” would only result in Snowden being targeted for harassment and prosecution.

Current NSA Director Keith Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper have been caught lying to Congress, and like Hayden, they are escaping prosecution. The glaring reality is that many of those who are calling for Snowden to be prosecuted and imprisoned are themselves criminals who are walking free.

-David Kasper

“Law Not War” Words of Wisdom from Ben Ferencz

Ben Ferencz and Wendy White

We just finished the most amazing interview with Ben Ferencz, one of the original prosecutors of the Nuremberg Trials. This 94-year old man still travels around the world, meets with leaders of state, lectures, publishes and works tirelessly to bring new solutions to acts of aggression and an end to war.

As an investigator of Nazi war crimes following WWII, he was one of the first Americans to enter the concentration camps. He collected evidence of war crimes, and witnessed the effects of some of the worst Nazi atrocities.

At age 27, he was hired as a lead prosecutor in the Nuremberg Trails. He applied principles of humanitarian law to prosecute Nazi SS Officers in what was known as the Einsatzgruppen trials, resulting in in the conviction of all 22 of the men on trial.

Since that time, he has dedicated his life to bringing new ways for the world to handle conflict. For more about his life and philosophy, check out his interview he did with NPR.   

- Wendy White

 

New York City – It’s a Wrap

We’re here at LaGuardia Airport, thinking back on the last week and a half of NYC interviews including a side trip to Vermont. What a privilege it has been to meet and interview so many great people.

We will be posting some new video clips soon.

View from the ACLU HQ
This picture was taken from the ACLU headquarters. We could watch the helicopters land and ships come in under the Brooklyn Bridge as we set up for the interview.

Our last two interviews were with Michael Ratner and Hina Shamsi.

Michael Ratner is an attorney, activist, and former President for the Center or Constitutional Rights. He currently represents Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. He was also present at the trail of Bradley Manning (now Chelsey Manning.) You can check out some of his interviews on Democracy Now.

Hina Shamsi, Director of the ACLU’s National Security Project. She has litigated cases upholding the freedoms of speech and association, and challenging targeted killing, torture, unlawful detention, and post-9/11 discrimination against racial and religious minorities.

Another Amazing Round of Interviews In NYC

2013-10-04 10.41.51

Greetings from NYC, where we have been since last Wednesday working on another round of interviews.  The picture is taken from the Human Rights Watch NY Office on the 34th floor of the Empire State Building.

I continue to be amazed by the people we meet and the stories they have to share. Let me introduce you to a few.

Debra Sweet is a long time anti-war activist and Director of World Can’t Wait, an organization dedicated to stopping the crimes of our government.

Reed Brody, Counsel and spokesperson for Human Rights Watch, he is often referred to as “The Dictator Hunter.” He travels around the world representing victims and using the rule of law to prosecute human rights crimes. He was instrumental in the cases against Augusto Pinochet and former dictator of Chad, Hissene Hebré.

William Arkin, Investigative journalist and author, most known for his exposé series in The Washington Post entitled Top Secret America. He just released a new book called “American Coup: How a Terrified Government is Destroying the Constitution.” He is currently working on a book on drones.

Center for Constitutional Rights has been a big supporter of our project. This week we interviewed three organization leaders:

Vincent Warren, CCR’s Executive Director works towards combating the illegal expansion of presidential power and policies such as: illegal detention at Guantanamo, rendition, torture and illegal wiretapping, holding corporations and government officials accountable for human rights abuses.

Maria Lahood, CCR Senior Staff Attorney, specializing in human rights litigation and holding corporations and government officials accountable for torture, extrajudicial killings and war crimes abroad. One of her cases is Arar vs. Ashcroft, a lawsuit against US officials for the extraordinary rendition of Canadian citizen, Maher Arar.

Omar Farah, CCR Staff Attorney, Guantanamo Global Justice Initiative. His stories of defending detainees at Guantanamo and his personal witness to the stories of torture, rendition and the impact of hunger strikes are enthralling.

- Wendy B. White