NSA spying is all over the news today. If you believe the allegations, the NSA and the FBI have been harvesting massive amounts of data from emails, social networks, phone calls and other communications for years.
They say they’re only monitoring communications from overseas, not targeting US citizens.
However, if you’re an expat from the US – or an expat in the US – that means you!
How to stay in touch with friends, family and business in your home country has always been an issue for expats.The internet has made it easy. Where it used to take a letter weeks or even months to travel from one country to another (if it made it at all), now we can pick up a telephone or log onto a computer and talk, video chat, email or message instantly with people all over this shrinking globe.
As we’re finding out, though, keeping our communications private is another matter altogether.
I’m not going to talk about the value of privacy, or whether we should expect it, or how much this encroaches on our Constitutional guarantees. (If you’re interested, though, you might want to check out this opinion piece on CNN.)
I don’t know of any way you can protect your privacy 100%, short of living in a cave. Since that’s not practical for most of us, here are a few of the communications tools you can use as an expat, and some basic steps you can take.
Email is great. It lets us send letters to loved ones, business associates, politicians or anyone else in the world. We can attach files, photos, audio and video to our emails. It’s easy, and it’s free or very cheap.
If you use one of the cloud-based email services – Google, Yahoo, MSN, Hotmail and the like – assume that someone from the NSA has the ability to harvest every single picture of your grandkids, every piece of financial information, and every political or religious view you express.
“But I’m not doing anything wrong,” you’re thinking. “Why should I worry?”
If you’re okay with some government flunky being able to look over your shoulder and read your diary, you probably don’t need to read the rest of this article.
If that bothers you and you’d still like to use a cloud-based email service, check out Hushmail. You can read all about their security and privacy on their How Hushmail Can Protect You page. The company is located in Canada, not the US.
If you post something on Facebook, Google Plus or other social media sites, don’t expect it to be private. Even “private” messages.
Of the big social media platforms, Twitter stands out as the company that protects you the best.
This includes phones –mobile, VOIP (voice over internet protocol) services like Vonage, Skype, Magic Jack and other computer/internet based systems.
Vonage comes right out and tells you, “Vonage is not liable for any lack of privacy which you may experience from using our service.”
Whistleblower Edward Snowden has identified Skype as one of the services that turns information over to the NSA.
Mobile phones have always been open to snooping. Don’t expect privacy on the phone – any phone.
Don’t assume that your ISP (internet service provider) will keep your browsing activity private.
To do that you need a VPN (virtual private network). And not just any VPN, because a lot of them will provide your logs without much fight if they’re asked to. Instead, choose a service like VPN4All (I’ve reviewed it here). It’s based in the Netherlands, and has servers all over the world. When you log on, you choose a server in a particular country or city. All your web traffic goes through that server.
A VPN is necessary protection against WiFi snoopers in public places. It also lets you access web content that might block you otherwise.
For example, if you enjoy watching streaming video on Netflix and you move abroad, you’ll get an error message saying you’re not allowed to view a video from the country you’re in.
Use a VPN, connect through a server in the US, and Netflix just sees that US internet address and streams your video. Most VPNs log your browsing activity. VPN4all doesn’t, adding a layer of protection. (They can’t produce a log that doesn’t exist.)
Sadly, this is often the weakest link.
It’s tempting sometimes to treat a Facebook private conversation as if it were actually – gasp – private, but it’s not. Don’t share anything on Facebook (or any other social media site) that you don’t want the world to know.
That includes pictures of your friend’s kid.
Recently I read about a situation where a mom shared a picture of her child’s friend with just a few close friends on Facebook. Another mom with sloppy privacy settings shared it again.
Before she could say “delete the picture,” it went viral. The child’s privacy was infringed and that photo is out in the wild now. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t get that image off the internet.
If you’re active on social media – and I am – make sure you understand the privacy settings that are available on that platform and use them. Think about what you share and what you upload. Do you want your mother-in-law to see it? Your ex? Some government snoop?
Susanna Perkins always wanted to experience life in another culture – she just never imagined it would become the “sensible” option. Believing that, when life hands you lemons you learn to juggle, she found herself with an entire crate full of citrus following the financial meltdown in the US. She started tossing fruit around and ended up, with her husband and three small dogs, in Las Tablas, Panama. With a more-or-less reliable internet connection she works as a freelance writer and shares her expat insights and experiences on her website, Future Expats Forum, and teaches non-technical people about WordPress at WordPress Building Blocks
Read Susanna's other Expat Focus articles here.