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If you've been reading the headlines about the NSA mining intelligence data from the world's largest data mongers, and haven't already burnt down your house with everything you own in it and set sail for a libertarian expat community in Chile, then there are some less dramatic suggestions in store for you. Evading the NSA's comprehensive surveillance system is no simple task, especially as we only know snippets of the agency's capabilities. But we're going to try our best.
First, it's time to take an inventory of anything you own or are borrowing that can be traced. Phones, credit cards, cars, e-mail addresses, bank accounts, social media profiles, wi-fi coffee machines, residences, P.O. boxes, and so on—any piece of property where there is more than a handwritten cash receipt proving more than purchase price should either be ditched or reengineered to steer clear of the NSA's radars.
Most of us have substantial paper trails, but ironically, it's real-life paper that should be the least of your worries right now. Yes, using cash is a significant method for dodging big brother. Even if you forget your fake mustache and bowler hat on a shopping trip to pick up your prepaid phones, SIM cards, and credit cards (which you'll need for online and advanced transactions), then you've still forced your trackers to figure out what it is you're buying. Cash is king, and as soon as you can, you should get as much of it as you can and bury it in your grandma's backyard.
You'll need an alternative to those pieces of plastic that do little more than turn you into a moving surveillance target, walking from geographic checkpoint to geographic checkpoint. Just use your cash to buy prepaid credit cards. They've got all kinds of options. There's even a prepaid Amex if your silly ass insists on having some conspicuous consumption on the side of the greater plan to be inconspicuous.
Also, start getting more excited about the gift cards your folks send you. Under this plan, if prepaid credit cards are the new credit card, then gift cards (some of which you can also buy prepaid credit cards with) are like... the new prepaid credit card. Follow me?
Illustration by the author
Now, this isn't the most stable way to store your money, but it can definitely serve the desire to remain anonymous. That is, if you buy your bitcoins carefully. You'd expect by way of popular belief that the 'untraceable cryptocurrency' is anonymous at every level. But if you're not careful, your transaction histories could be forked over to government agencies in the same complicit manner that produced the scenario we're dealing with right now.
You could send money from your bank account, but I already told you to get rid of those. If you've made it this far without closing them, then you're skipping ahead. But half-assed-NSA-dodging is better than none. In buying bitcoins, your most covert options are either a) buy a MoneyPak card (a hybridization between prepaid credit cards and gift cards) at a Walmart, Longs, 7-Eleven or RadioShack and then exchange it for bitcoins online, b) go through a broker like BitInstant, in which you send a cash wire transfer, or c), the most anonymous method, arrange to buy bitcoins in person through Bitcoin Talk Forum or Craigslist.
These are best practices until bitcoin ATMs actually start popping up. But even if we do see a proliferation of Bitcoin atms on city streets in the near future, they'll most likely have government-tapped cameras inside of them. It's a trap!
With cell phone providers having customer usage largely cataloged by the NSA, telephony operation under a state-surveillance regime is probably the trickiest thing to deal with of all. There's the classic route of using code words, voice modulators, and pay phones, the latter of which is your best bet. But here are a few other things worth saving your cell phone for.
Of course, you can opt to use your smartphone over wi-fi, and if its an Android you can install mobile Tor software, and then chat anonymously and off-the-record to friends in the surveilled networks (Google, Facebook) through Gibberbot, or place calls and videochat with apps like Tango and KakaoTalk. Another relatively new app called Seecrypt purports to encrypt your mobile calls seamlessly, which looks promising.
Since prepaid phone carriers share and receive signals with boxes on all the same towers that the NSA is scanning, it's hard to say when and where you're clear. One step in a righteous direction might be to signup with Credo, the radical cellular provider that's fighting for a wide range of progressive issues. Of course, Obama could secretly reinstate McCarthyism, in which case your commie-ass is black-listed.
But let's face it: Eventually you're going to have to make some phone calls. I suggest a prepaid or existing smartphone with a prepaid SIM running Tor or Seecrypt for good measure. Keep that bad boy wrapped up in heavy metal or one of Adam Harvey's forthcoming signal-blocking OFF Pockets until you're ready to make a call. Also, try to randomize your location. Intelligence analytics can eventually figure out your route patterns if they want to follow you on camera.
First of all, you're going to want to reconsider the way that you read Motherboard, or how you logon to the web altogether. And I'm not talking about self-discovery a la Paul Miller. You needn't much to browse the Internet more comfortably, knowing that a group of like-minded privacy advocates are relaying random pathways for you to browse without concern of your history being traced. Welcome to the world of Tor browsing (short for The Onion Router). The client is free and simple to install on almost any machine.
While Mozilla's Firefox isn't implicated in the PRISM reports, the incognito browsing function is a joke compared to Tor. Due to auto-fill, auto-page-zoom levels and other browser characteristics that can be scraped analyzed from the incognito tabs of both Firefox and Chrome, all you're doing in an incognito tab is keeping your mom from finding seeing the nasty things you've been looking at. (My editor endearingly calls this, 'porn mode.')
A host of encryption and clandestine communications tools are at your fingertips right now. And a lot of it goes back to the Internet's earlier days. Pretty good privacy, or PGP, is an airtight encryption method for sending and receiving protected messages. There is IRC, or Internet Relay Chat, where Bradley Manning, hacker groups like Anonymous, and other people in fear of being tracked—with names like Meat_Duck and Koffin_Kat—are bound to be hanging out.
Also, if you have something big to say, or publish, you can always drop it off at pastebin, Wikileaks, the New Yorker's Strongbox, and a host of other platforms to spill your news with. Just remember, avoid getting caught and having to do this.
There is probably no use in deleting your Gmail account at this point; it's all backed up somewhere. Still, it's never too late to switch over to Tor Mail, which single-handedly allows you to anonymously send, receive and hide your emails. Just remember, you will need to be running your TOR client to operate the out-of-sight email service.
As the saying goes, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Although government positions of the sort are highly competitive and typically reserved for nepotistic military families, the National Security Agency offers a decent salary for entry level intelligence analysts. Hey, they've got openings. Need I mention the federal benefits package?