Schoen points to private browsing as a very useful tool but notes that it has very specific limitations. “The purpose of private browsing mode is to avoid leaving a history of one's browsing in the browser history on the computer you were using—to prevent other people who also use that computer from seeing what you were doing,” he says. Private browsing, however, has no effect on the data that's transmitted over the Internet. Even when a browser is in private mode, an ISP will still know when and where it customers went online as well as the sites they visited. Likewise, those sites will retain any information they obtained from users during those visits.
More than a decade ago, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory initiated The Onion Routing project—now referred to simply as Tor—to develop software for preserving one’s privacy while using the Web. “Onion routing” refers to the practice of encasing data and its routing instructions in multiple layers of encryption, making it more difficult to trace a user’s Internet activity.
Tor, which the EFF funded for a few years before privacy-promoting nonprofit The Tor Project took over stewardship of the work in 2006, includes a browser that routes users’ Web surfing activity through a network of relays run by volunteers worldwide, a process that makes it difficult to pinpoint a particular user’s location. Tor Browser, which is actually a modified version of Firefox, essentially anonymizes the origin of Web traffic by encrypting communications inside the Tor network.
The Tor Project counts former National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as two of its most high-profile supporters. Still, Tor Browser’s design limits its speed and certain conveniences offered by less secure browsers. The use of different nodes in the Tor Network to promote anonymity, for example, can slow data transmissions. In addition, data is decrypted once it exits the Tor Network, leaving it vulnerable to eavesdroppers at that point.
In a move to make greater use of HTTPS (or Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) to protect communications over the Web, the EFF partnered with The Tor Project to create HTTPS Everywhere as a plug-in for Firefox and Chrome. HTTPS Everywhere automatically activates HTTPS encryption for all areas of a site that support this protocol. Some sites, including the New York Times, allow HTTPS for text but not images, which means someone might be able to determine which images a browser loads when visiting nytimes.com.
Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) e-mail encryption software, meanwhile, prevents even a web-mail provider from reading its customers’ messages, although it requires users manually create, manage and exchange cryptography keys. For instant messaging, Off-the-Record Messaging (OTR) encrypts conversations to keep them confidential between parties, although not all IM providers support OTR.
Encryption tools are generally effective for keeping prying eyes from reading e-mails, instant messages and other content sent to and fro. One caveat is these tools do not prevent law enforcement, ISPs and others from determining who is communicating, when and from what location—information that may be as sensitive as the messages themselves.
Data storage services from Amazon, Apple, Dropbox and others can house gigabytes of data in “the cloud” that users can access from a variety of devices, including PCs, tablets and smartphones. Unfortunately, existing privacy laws—in particular the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act—have not caught up with today’s electronic communications. That law considers information including e-mails “abandoned” and available to law enforcement if they are stored for more than 180 days on a service provider’s server.
So-called “host-proof” data storage services have emerged in recent years to provide an added layer of security to stored information. Apple iCloud and Dropbox, for example, encrypt customer data while it is uploaded and stored on the companies’ servers. Host-proof providers such as SpiderOak and Wuala encrypt customer data on the customers’ computers before—as well as during and after—the data are uploaded to the cloud. The idea is that the host cannot read the data it stores, making it less liable to turn over data to law enforcement when they come calling (although it remains to be seen how this will work in practice).