The NSA has huge capabilities – and if it wants in to your computer, it's in. With that in mind, here are five ways to stay safe from the leading security expert and cryptographer Bruce Schneier.
Now that we have enough details about how the NSA eavesdrops on the internet, including today's disclosures of the NSA's deliberate weakening of cryptographic systems, we can finally start to figure out how to protect ourselves.
The primary way the NSA eavesdrops on internet communications is in the network. That's where their capabilities best scale. They have invested in enormous programs to automatically collect and analyze network traffic. Anything that requires them to attack individual endpoint computers is significantly more costly and risky for them, and they will do those things carefully and sparingly.
That's an enormous amount of data, and the NSA has equivalently enormous capabilities to quickly sift through it all, looking for interesting traffic. "Interesting" can be defined in many ways: by the source, the destination, the content, the individuals involved, and so on. This data is funneled into the vast NSA system for future analysis.
The NSA collects much more metadata about internet traffic: who is talking to whom, when, how much, and by what mode of communication. Metadata is a lot easier to store and analyze than content. It can be extremely personal to the individual, and is enormously valuable intelligence.
The NSA also attacks network devices directly: routers, switches, firewalls, etc. Most of these devices have surveillance capabilities already built in; the trick is to surreptitiously turn them on. This is an especially fruitful avenue of attack; routers are updated less frequently, tend not to have security software installed on them, and are generally ignored as a vulnerability.
The NSA deals with any encrypted data it encounters more by subverting the underlying cryptography than by leveraging any secret mathematical breakthroughs. First, there's a lot of bad cryptography out there. If it finds an internet connection protected by MS-CHAP, for example, that's easy to break and recover the key. It exploits poorly chosen user passwords, using the same dictionary attacks hackers use in the unclassified world.
TAO also hacks into computers to recover long-term keys. So if you're running a VPN that uses a complex shared secret to protect your data and the NSA decides it cares, it might try to steal that secret. This kind of thing is only done against high-value targets.
How do you communicate securely against such an adversary? Snowden said it in an online Q&A soon after he made his first document public: "Encryption works. Properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on."
Snowden's follow-on sentence is equally important: "Unfortunately, endpoint security is so terrifically weak that NSA can frequently find ways around it."
Endpoint means the software you're using, the computer you're using it on, and the local network you're using it in. If the NSA can modify the encryption algorithm or drop a Trojan on your computer, all the cryptography in the world doesn't matter at all. If you want to remain secure against the NSA, you need to do your best to ensure that the encryption can operate unimpeded.
With all this in mind, I have five pieces of advice:
Since I started working with Snowden's documents, I have been using GPG, Silent Circle, Tails, OTR, TrueCrypt, BleachBit, and a few other things I'm not going to write about. There's an undocumented encryption feature in my Password Safe program from the command line); I've been using that as well.
I understand that most of this is impossible for the typical internet user. Even I don't use all these tools for most everything I am working on. And I'm still primarily on Windows, unfortunately. Linux would be safer.