Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Government snooping - How to protect yourself

The British Government's recently announced proposals to introduce legalised snooping of telephone calls made, e-mail envelopes sent and received, websites visited and social media activity have been met with widespread and justified outrage. The proposals were not part of the LibDem or Conservative manifestoes and they contradict the commitments on Civil Liberties from the document The Coalition: our programme for government. (see p.11)

A few people, who appear to favour this kind of unwarranted intrusion into our lives on the grounds of "national security", might say "If you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about".

However, there are many legitimate reasons why you may want to protect yourself from intrusion by the Government. British governments have a poor track record of handling private data, so you may not trust the security of the computer system where this information is stored and the integrity of the people who are using it. Further, you may be worried how a future Government might use this data. If you're in business, you might be concerned that your company's trade secrets would be spied on by the Government.

Prevention is better than cure

Clearly, prevention is better than cure, so the best way to avoid Government snooping is to prevent it from happening in the first place. You can do this by writing to your MP and writing to or calling the private offices of Cameron and Clegg (020 7276 3000).

The Internet Service Provider (ISP) is the company which provides your connection to the Internet. British ISPs include such companies BT, Virgin Media, TalkTalk and Sky.

If the surveillance proposals are made law then the ISPs will be obliged to keep logs of each instance of telephone calls made and received, e-mail sender and recipient, addresses of websites visited and social media site visits. The result is a mass of data which can be used to build a "profile" of you and your connections to other people.

If this misguided plan does go ahead, here are a few ways in which you can protect yourself from Government snooping. These are techniques which are already used by ordinary people in repressive regimes such as China, Singapore and Saudi Arabia.

Protecting your Internet connection

One of the most effective methods of protecting your Internet connection is to install Virtual Private Network (VPN) software. This creates a "pipe" between you and a VPN server, through which all Internet access is encrypted. By choosing a VPN server outside the UK you will not be subject to spying on your Internet traffic. However, your e-mail could still be monitored if you use your ISPs e-mail server.


For security, it is best not to use a UK ISP's e-mail address, which is usually in the format name@yourprovider. Instead register your own domain name and e-mail address with an overseas provider or use a free Internet address from Hotmail, GMail or any other provider based outside the UK.

Web surfing

In addition to the use of a VPN, you might consider using a proxy server outside the UK for your web surfing. This redirects all web surfing activity so that it appears to come from the "proxy" system instead of from your own computer. The result is that a website does not see the real person who is connecting to the site.

Social Media

Social media sites use web technology to display status pages, updates and Tweets. These can be protected by the use of VPNs and proxy servers and by using the secure versions of the sites. So, for example: instead of
and instead of

The Government log would then just show a connection to the website but will not include further details.


All of these methods are legal and available to everyone. What they demonstrate is how easy it would be for us to protect ourselves from a snooping Government. They also show that the proposals, from a technical perspective, are a folly. For, if every law-abiding citizen can hide, then those who might want to use the Internet to break the law, can also hide using the same methods.

Marcus Williamson, 4 April 2012

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