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How to hide your data from Internet snoops

NSA leaker Edward Snowden says encrypting e-mail makes it unreadable by the National Security Administration.

Story highlights

  • With reports of NSA snooping, Web security has become a focus for many
  • NSA whistleblower says encryption is an effective tool for protecting data
  • Many browsers, e-mail clients offer encrypted versions of messaging
  • Sometimes, it's as easy as adding an "S" in your URL box

Let's face it: Most of us don't e-mail, tweet, text or post anything worthy of clandestine scrutiny.

But having concerns about NSA cybersnooping doesn't mean we must surrender all privacy -- what's left of it -- in our day-to-day online activities.

It's easy to forget that we're volunteering basic information about ourselves in return for free e-mail, social networking and other digital services. And let's remember that third parties -- from government agencies to cybercriminals -- can get their hands on even more personal stuff if they're actively trying.

So, whether it's due to a vague fear of Big Brother or a more specific desire to keep your bank information out of the hands of thieves, you might be considering ways to keep your communication more secure.

"So much that's geo-political, so much cybercrime, so many struggles of various types are being played out in terms of information security today," said Wade Williamson, a senior security analyst at Palo Alto Networks. "It's not just that people decided to get interested in encryption all of a sudden."

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    Specifically, encryption has come up a lot in recent days. For one, NSA whistleblower (some would say "traitor") Edward Snowden said Monday in an online question-and-answer session that e-mail encryption is an effective way of foiling government surveillance.

    "Encryption works," he wrote. "Properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on. Unfortunately, endpoint security is so terrifically weak that NSA can frequently find ways around it."

    Encryption is a method of securing your files, including e-mail, by encoding it so that the intended recipient can read it, but anyone who may intercept the message along the way cannot.

    An encryption tool turns your original message (called "plaintext") into a garbled mess (or "ciphertext") while it's flying from Point A to Point B. The system gives the approved recipient a decryption tool which makes the text readable once it arrives at its destination.

    With all of the renewed interest in online privacy, we talked with Williamson about ways to help keep your data secure -- before, during and after sending it.

    Before

    First things first. There are ways to make your contact with every website you visit more secure.

    A "secure sockets layer" (SSL) provides a layer of security during everything from Web browsing to text messaging. Many major websites offer the option of using a secure connection all the time. Williamson and other security experts suggest doing this when given the option.

    If not -- sometimes it can be as easy as tweaking "http" to "https" in your browser's address bar.

    "By and large, you can just throw an 'S' into the URL and go to town," Williamson said.

    There are also tools like HTTPS Everywhere, a free extension for Chrome and Firefox browsers, that encrypt your connection with most major websites.

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    During

    Most major e-mail services, like Outlook and Gmail, offer some form of encryption. Check your e-mail's security settings for options.

    But for people who are really worried about their e-mails being intercepted -- and that's always just an unsecured network and an eager hacker away -- Williamson suggests buying encryption software. (Note: His company focuses on network security and does not sell encryption software to individuals).

    With many of the systems, customers will get digital "certificates" for themselves called private keys. Everyone with whom they want to share encrypted messages will receive public keys.

    Using such a system, only someone with a private certificate could descramble a message's content.

    After

    So, your data may be secure while it's hurtling through cyberspace. But what if somebody breaks into your car, where you stupidly left your laptop, and makes off with it?

    That's where disk encryption comes in.

    There's some free disk encryption software floating around in the open-source community, but for most folks this, too, will cost some cash.

    In effect, disk encryption scrambles everything stored to your computer, requiring a password or other approved recovery tool to decode it. So, if your computer falls into the wrong hands, all won't be lost.

    To summarize, there are lots of encryption and other security options out there. Some are quick, easy and free. Others are going to cost money for specialized software, hardware or both.

    To find a level of security you're comfortable with, start by poking around with security settings on your browser, e-mail client and favorite websites. Then consider whether you want professional help to get to the next level.

    Do you have other favorite security tricks? Share them in the comments.