While not the most uplifting of topics to consider, the truth is that there are plenty of responsible reasons for keeping your communicating under wraps. I know people in difficult divorce situations being confronted by soon-to-be exes whose correspondence might reveal their location; vindictive ex-friends determined to interfere in personal lives; and plain-old hackers whose way in to your online life is through your email.
The New York Times ran a story on what ordinary people can do to keep their information at least a bit harder to get, even in an age where laws governing legal email privacy predate popular use of the Internet. According to the Times, email providers like Google and Yahoo keep login records that reveal I.P. addresses for up to 18 months, during which they can be subpoenaed. Under the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a warrant is not required for emails six months old and older.
Unfortunately, saving messages in a draft folder to avoid a digital trail won’t help you either. The Department of Justice says that messages in the “draft” or “sent mail” folder are not in “electronic storage” (as defined by the Stored Communications Act), and don’t deserve warrant protection. To help keep your communications under wraps, here are some tips from reporters at the New York Times, Reuters, and CNN:
Hide your IP location. According to the Times, masking your IP address using Tor, a popular privacy tool that allows anonymous Web browsing, or using a virtual private network adds a layer of security to public Wi-Fi networks.
Encrypt your messages. Email encryption services, like GPG, help protect digital secrets from eavesdroppers, the Times notes. Without an encryption key, any message stored in an inbox will look like gibberish.
Go off the record. Google’s instant messaging client Google Talk allows you to chat without anything being saved or searchable in either person’s Gmail account. Wickr, a mobile app, does something similar for smartphones, encrypting video, photos and text and erasing deleted files for good.
Beware the search engine. According to John Herrman at Buzzfeed, it’s worth noting that search engines like Google “are a repository of the developed world’s darkest and most heartbreaking secrets, a vast closet lined with millions of digital skeletons that, should they escape, would spare nobody.”
What do you think about taking the precautionary steps to make your correspondences harder for the wrong people to intercept: prudent or paranoid? Sound off here.