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The year of surveillance

December 22nd, 2016
The spectre of George Orwell's 1984 loomed large this year as governments around the world made moves to increase their abilities to spy on citizens, according to NordVPN, which offers some advice.
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It seems that in 2016 Internet privacy has experienced a string of shocks around the world. A Polish law was instated that loosened spying restrictions for police, the UK received Investigatory Powers Bill, Rule 41 in the U.S. gave the FBI hacking powers and Belarus was able to block the TOR network.

Restricting Internet privacy and interfering with people’s lives by mass surveillance brings fear to the society and dramatically increases the likelihood of criminal activity – not only by governments, but to whoever is able to hack, intercept or otherwise manipulate the system.

Below is the NordVPN review of the Year in Online Privacy, and some suggestions on how people can protect themselves online.

In Germany, new data retention act requires public telecommunication and Internet providers to retain various call detail records (CDRs). These include phone numbers, the date and time of phone calls and texts, the content of text messages, and, for mobile calls, the locations of call participants. In addition, Internet providers are required to store user metadata such as IP addresses, port numbers, and the date and time of Internet access.

Poland’s law expands government access to digital data and loosens restrictions on police spying. Collected metadata will be kept for up to 2 years. One doesn’t have to be an official suspect to be placed under surveillance for up to 18 months. In addition, the person being monitored will not be informed about it, compromising the protection of journalists’ sources and deterring potential whistleblowers.

On July 7, President Vladimir Putin of Russia signed into law several bills designed to help the government take measures against dissent online and demand unprecedented levels of data retention from the country’s telecom companies. For instance, the legislation warrants tougher sentencing for online commentary deemed as an incitement to hatred or a violation of human dignity. Such convictions now carry a minimum prison sentence of two years. The law requires service providers to monitor and store all calls, texts, chats and web browsing activity. The retained data can be accessed by several government agencies without a warrant.

The UK’s Investigatory Powers Act received the royal assent on November 29, opening up the gate for a disturbingly intrusive surveillance system. Among other things, the so-called Snoopers Charter gives the state the ability to indiscriminately hack, intercept, record, and monitor the communications and Internet use of all of the UK population. The entire browsing history of every resident of the UK will be stored for one year. Almost 50 police forces and government departments, ranging from the Metropolitan Police Service and GCHQ to the Food Standards Agency are authorized to access the data.

In the U.S., a new amendment to the Rule 41 of the US Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure quietly went into effect on December 1. It allows the FBI to secretly use malware to hack into thousands of computers with one warrant. There is no need to identify specific computers to be searched. That means FBI can hack into as many computers as they wish, whether their owners are suspected of some criminal activity or not.

New surveillance laws have also been passed and/or enacted in Belarus, China, Turkey, Ethiopia and elsewhere this year. For detailed information, visit our extensive coverage on those laws in our recent Privacy Review blog post.

Dangers of Surveillance States

Citizen control and surveillance, especially suspicions surveillance, whether physical or digital, has not proved to be an effective way to control criminal activity ­history tells us it has always turned out to be counter-productive, endangering lives and causing fear and insecurity.

For example, when the government opens a backdoor to citizen’s data, it means that this backdoor could potentially be used by anyone else, and can fall into the hands of hackers. Once the information is in the wrong hands, it can be used to steal people¹s identities and rob them of their bank accounts, for example. Data can also get misplaced, systems can crash and everyone can get endangered.

Solution

There are solutions to bypass some of these restrictive laws, the most reliable being a VPN service. A VPN sends your data through a securely encrypted tunnel before accessing the Internet ­ this protects any sensitive information about your location by hiding your IP address.

Connecting through a VPN tunnel hides your online activity from your Internet service provider (ISP). The only information visible to the ISP is that you are connected to a VPN server, while all other information is encrypted by the VPN¹s protocol. This prevents ISPs from collecting potentially sensitive data and passing it onto any third parties.

It¹s also important to use a VPN service that does not store activity records to ensure your data is not logged and forwarded to any agencies. NordVPN has a strict no-log policy and could not supply any information on your online activities even if requested.

Besides a VPNs, it’s also crucial to use anti-spyware software, to make sure to use a Firewall, not to install unapproved programs on the computer that might contain bugs, and to be generally vigilant about the kind of information one shares and opens online.

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