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Low Tech: 3 Ways to Beat the NSA

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In George Orwell's 1984, the main character, Winston, is being constantly watched by his own government, which goes by the moniker "Big Brother". In his dingy apartment the "telescreen", a two-way television that cannot be turned off, simultaneously watches and listens in on everything he does while blaring propaganda into his living room.

Winston found refuge for his thoughts in a hidden corner, with a pen and a diary. The telescreen couldn't see him, and the quiet scratchings of his pen wouldn't give him away. Writing down one's thoughts by hand was very much illegal in 1984, one had to use a Speakwrite, which allowed the careful state monitoring of every printed word.

Orwell was half right in his predictions; while we are all being monitored in this Brave New World, he felt the privacy of one's thoughts and writings would have to be wrestled away from citizens by force. Orwell never foresaw that as a matter of convenience, we would voluntarily use devices that function as telescreen and Speakwrite all at once. These would be our computers and smartphones, of course, happily converting our thoughts and communications into binary information ready to be digested by NSA supercomputers. Too ripe a target to be passed up, the NSA has indeed totally compromised the privacy of nearly all forms of electronic communication. For our protection, as they would tell it.

However, the all-seeing eye in Washington has a blind spot. As technology has funneled nearly all communications through vulnerable, searchable, database-ready channels, government spies seem to feel confident that any and all communications contrary to the interests of the state will pass through their omniscient electronic dragnet. However, as thorough and brilliant the NSA spymasters might be in tracking every bit and byte, the multi-billion dollar systems can be easily defeated by even a mildly determined private citizen.

While defeating the codebreakers at the NSA is nearly impossible, the art of concealing a message, so that no one but the sender or recipient even suspects its existence, is available to anyone. This is known as steganography, as opposed to cryptography. Here are just a few of these methods of half-baked spycraft that won't even trigger the supercomputers in Maryland.

1. Snail mail

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Mail can be sent from any dropbox anywhere, with any return address on it, with hidden messages enclosed, disguised as junk mail. Yes, Stasi thugs can read your mail, but interpreting all the paper mail would take millions of employees while reading all the emails just takes a few mega-computers. All the ultra-sophisticated electronic snooping in the world won't be able to physically open, read and check for encrypted messages in all 660 million pieces of mail delivered in the United States every day. If the needle-in-a-haystack-method isn't enough for you, check out these two methods.


2. The Cardan Grille

CardanGrille.png

This method of encryption is invulnerable to any brute-force mathematical means of codebreaking, and you can make one with an index card and a pocket knife. The grille, you see, covers up everything on a page of text that is not the message, with the holes revealing the hidden message within.

Certainly, it is not beyond the resources of the NSA to solve a Cardan Grille cipher, but the fact that it must be recognized as a cipher in the first place, and resources must be allocated to solve it, means it will almost certainly slip through any automated filters unnoticed.

3. Baconian Ciphers

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If you don't feel comfortable sending text of any kind, how about a Baconian cipher? First, you encode each letter of the alphabet into five letters, each of which are either A or B. The letter A becomes AAAAA, the letter B becomes AAAAB, and so on. By encoding the alphabet this way, any item that has two colors, sizes, shapes or types can be used to encode a message. From black and white beads, to men wearing shorts and slacks, a photo of an otherwise uninteresting scene can convey a complex message. A photo of a beer fridge (the different kinds of beer being A and B) could be used to convey a secret message. To the untrained eye, it would appear to be typical frat-guy boasting.

For more on Baconian Ciphers, check out this article.


The fact of the matter is, if it's digital, the NSA get a hold of it and store it forever. If it isn't digital, it doesn't fit anywhere in the business model. There is no place for holepunched pieces of cardboard in the NSA's massive computer database. It is a terribly simple matter to avoid the Matrix; just unplug and only use methods that exist outside the reach of the NSA octopus's tentacles.

 

 

 

 

 

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Richard is an engineer by day, and a political activist by night, fighting would-be totalitarians and government busybodies everywhere.

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