Guarding Your Privacy in a Post-Snowden World: Dos and Don’ts

Photograph by Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images

The Threat Operations Center at the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland.

President Barack Obama canceled talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He declared Edward Snowden is not a patriot. He said he’ll ask Congress to change the section of the Patriot Act authorizing the collection of telephone records. And that was just as he prepared for vacation.

It’s been two and a half busy months since the National Security Administration contractor-leaker came onto the scene, and Washington has been buzzing about his whistle-blowing and Russian amnesty. The central issue, though, guarding Americans’ privacy, hasn’t remained quite as hot a topic despite Snowden’s pesky reminder of its importance.

So, what have ordinary Americans learned during the whole ordeal?

DO turn off location tracking on your phone. Just 19 percent of cellphone owners say they’ve switched the feature off to stop people and companies from gaining access to their information, according to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. Imagine how quickly Snowden might have been tracked down in Hong Kong if he’d left Google Maps running on his smartphone.

DO de-tag yourself from incriminating or embarrassing photos – it’s easy if you try. Only 37 percent of adults say they have de-tagged themselves in photos on social media sites, according to Pew. Even better, ask whoever posted that photo of you in the Moscow airport to delete it immediately.

DON’T send sensitive information over email. Forwarding and blind-copying worries alone should deter you, not to mention Big Brother. If you must send secretive emails, encrypt them. Snowden sent the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald a step-by-step guide to securing their correspondence with PGP encryption when the two began communicating, Greenwald told the Huffington Post. David Farber, former chief technologist for the Federal Communications Commission, said he uses encryption for “something really important.” The NSA news should encourage more people to take such precautions, said Farber, a computer science and public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “Suddenly we’re talking to thousands of people when we write a note,” Farber said. “I’m not sure we’ve adjusted our heads to that.”

DO use ephemeral messaging to reduce the odds that your photo or message will be seen by unwelcome eyes. Over 150 million photos a day are sent via Snapchat, an app whose messages self-destruct after being viewed. Similar apps are changing users’ privacy expectations, according to Chloe Bregman and Alex Karweit, founders of Squawk Messenger, which debuted June 25. “You’re going to see a big shift where they have more control and they’re more aware of their privacy,” Karweit said about ephemeral-app users. “The mechanics of how you have your relationships, I think you’re going to always see that evolve as people get more savvy about how data is stored and what data is shared with whom.”

But ephemeral apps are only a small corner of the digital communications landscape, a boon for Anthony Weiner, maybe, but hardly a foolproof solution to most privacy problems.

DON’T have Internet relations with Anthony Weiner. If you already have, don’t tell anyone. Sydney Leathers gave up her privacy on July 23.

DON’T assume something will stay within your intended social network. We knew this before the Snowden affair, too. Randi Zuckerberg, the sister of Facebook’s founder, famously committed this rookie mistake when she posted a family photo to Facebook last Christmas. Callie Schweitzer saw the photo in her Facebook news feed and, not realizing it was meant to stay private, sent it into the public Twitterverse. Zuckerberg later tweeted that Schweitzer’s move was “way uncool.”

DON’T let your friends film you. Two weeks after the Snowden news broke, Instagram launched its 15-second video-sharing feature to compete with Twitter’s Vine app. YouTube brought out its 16-second video app, MixBit, on Aug. 8. Jonathan Zittrain, a law and computer science professor at Harvard, said in light of the proliferation of video we should allow those who feel their privacy has been compromised to contact the compromiser. Zittrain, author of “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It,” says if we can’t create social checks on data proliferation, we may all have to contend with “some of the problems that used to be unique to celebrity.”

DON’T blow the whistle on secret U.S. government programs. If you must, don’t reveal your identity days later. Your work and family history will be reported in minute detail by every major news organization. Your girlfriend’s blog will go viral. Your passport photo will be printed on the cover of the New York Times whether or not you’re photogenic.

DON’T give up on protecting your privacy even though the effort seems futile. You are the biggest threat to your own privacy. Sixty percent of teens say they’re not concerned about third parties accessing their data online, Pew says. You’re not a teenager, are you? “I don’t want to go as far as some people who say privacy is dead,” Farber said. “I don’t think it is. But I don’t think practically I can count on government or corporations to do it for me. I have to protect my own.”

DON’T give birth to the future king of England.

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