In Louisiana, the wife of a former soldier is scaling back on Facebook posts and considering unfriending old acquaintances, worried an innocuous joke or long-lost associate might one day land her in a government probe. In California, a college student encrypts chats and emails, saying he’s not planning anything sinister but shouldn’t have to sweat snoopers. And in Canada, a lawyer is rethinking the data products he uses to ensure his clients’ privacy.
As the attorney, Chris Bushong, put it: “Who wants to feel like they’re being watched?”
News of the U.S. government’s secret surveillance programs that targeted phone records but also information transmitted on the Internet has done more than spark a debate about privacy. Some are reviewing and changing their online habits as they reconsider some basic questions about today’s interconnected world. Among them: How much should I share and how should I share it?
Some say they want to take preventative measures in case such programs are expanded. Others are looking to send a message — not just to the U.S. government but to the Internet companies that collect so much personal information.
“We all think that nobody’s interested in us; we’re all simple folk,” said Doan Moran of Alexandria, La. “But you start looking at the numbers and the phone records ... it makes you really hesitate.”
Potential harm is “becoming more tangible over time,” said Gabriel Weinberg, chief executive of search site DuckDuckGo. Weinberg is posting fewer family photos, dropping a popular cloud service that stores files and checking his settings on devices at home to ensure they are as private as possible.
Last month, former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents revealing that the National Security Agency, as part of its anti-terrorism efforts, had collected the phone records of millions of Americans. A second NSA program called PRISM forces major Internet firms to turn over the detailed contents of communications such as emails, video chats, pictures and more.
Moran’s husband, an ex-Army man, already was guarded about using social media. Now she is looking through her Facebook “friends” to consider whom to delete, because she can’t know what someone in her network might do in the future. Moran said she’s uneasy because she feels unclear about what the NSA is keeping and how deep the agency’s interests might go.
In Toronto, attorney Bushong let a free trial of Google’s business applications expire after learning about PRISM, under which the NSA seized data from Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and AOL. Bushong is moving to San Diego in August to launch a tax-planning firm and said he wants to be able to promise confidentiality and respond sufficiently should clients question his firm’s data security.
Across the Internet, computer users are talking about changes small and large — from strengthening passwords and considering encryption to ditching cellphones and using cash over credit cards. The conversations play out daily on Reddit, Twitter and other networks, and have spread to offline life with so-called “Cryptoparty” gatherings that show people how to operate online more privately.