NSA spying: Should you be worried?

Photo courtesy Flickr user Spy vs Sci 518

(MoneyWatch) We've been living with disclosures about National Security Agency's domestic surveillance for weeks now. Thanks to a flurry of news kicked off by leaker Edward Snowden, we now know a lot more than we did before about programs like PRISM, which scrapes so-called metadata from the communications of American citizens.

The real question, of course, is how worrisome is all of this? Some people criticize the programs as an unlawful infringement on our civil liberties. Others say it's no big deal -- the cost of vigilance in the modern world. I tried to tackle some of these questions in this month's Geek Vs Geek debate with former CBS MoneyWatch blogger Rick Broida: Geek Vs Geek: Should You Be Worried -- Or Furious -- About NSA Spying?.

The Geek Vs Geek debate covers some common ground. The NSA claims that no actual communication is being evaluated, only the metadata (which has been recognized as legal since a 1979 Supreme Court ruling on wiretapping. (The legal upshot is there's no expectation of privacy with regard to the phone number you are dialing, only the contents of the call.) More vexing is the question of limiting principles.

Specifically, in a world where intelligence agencies get limited practical oversight, what limiting principle will prevent unrestrained government overreach? Of more practical value, the article also provides some actionable advice for how to protect your privacy online. Here are some things you should keep in mind:

  • Protect your password -- don't store them in a browser, but use a password keeper app instead.
  • Use disposable email addresses for non-critical communication.
  • Consider using disposable phone numbers for certain activities, like Craigslist transactions.
  • Remember that your browser's private or incognito mode doesn't hide your tracks online; it only sanitizes your PC. For the ultimate in privacy, consider using Tor.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Spy vs Sci 518