Monday, October 15, 2012

How to Beat the CIA and Protect Your Data

Tails tells no Tales

Is there any way you can surf online safely to avoid the risk of compromising your computer and more importantly, your personal identifiers and confidential data?

The question is understandably pertinent these days. Consider the sharing of personal chronicles like photos and video on social networking sites. The transmission and exchange of confidential data, sensitive business information and trade secrets via emails, instant messaging, Skype calls and cloud computing. Or simply access and execute transactions on an online banking account?

These have become routine online activities in this modern digital age but there are increasing concerns of interception, especially given the current climate of dynamic cyber espionage and hacking activities, let alone illegal bugging by federal intelligence agencies – as with the recent case of illegal bugging of millionaire Kim Dotcom by the New Zealand spy agency GCSB.

The situation is even more complicated for business travelers, especially when they visit places known for allegedly high incidences of hacking and espionage activities or active government eavesdropping and wiretapping. For example, following a courtesy call in Hong Kong last June, the Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith and his staff reportedly left their laptops and mobile phones behind to avoid potential interception when they attended bilateral defense talks in Mainland China.

But it is equally unsafe even on home soil. Free public Wi-Fi infrastructure often poses significant risks, as these are the usual hot spots where hackers wait to prey on innocent victims. The Internet connections at home and the office (or hotel for that matter) are not any safer. And forget Internet cafés. The latter two are often open gateways for government spies in some countries.

Has the world reached a state of paranoia? Or are these clear and present dangers?

In either case, the good news is you can do something about it and you need not be a geek to outdo those seasoned geeks – this is nothing new to computer experts but great news for the general public.

And the CIA will be impressed. I mean the CIA, MI6, Mossad and whoever your friendly local government spy agencies may be, do not want you to know this trick. It is a simple solution that will allow you to go online anonymously. You go online undetected, do what you need to do and then leave the computer with no trace of your activities. Sounds good?

Now the bad news: you need to use Linux as the operating system. But the catch is, you don’t have to be a seasoned Linux user or computer expert. And you don’t even need to have Linux installed on the computer. Any computer with the Windows or Mac operating system will work.

Linux comes in many varieties known as distributions, or distros for short. And there is this little known distro called Tails, which “aims at preserving your privacy and anonymity”.

The beauty of Tails Linux is that it is not to be installed on any computer. And it doesn’t alter or depend on the host operating system on the computer.

First, you download Tails onto a DVD or thumb drive. Then you simply insert the DVD or thumb drive into your computer or any computer such as those in the Internet café, office, public library, etc.

A “Live” Tails operating system will pop up, i.e. Tails will become the temporary operating system. The connection to the Internet will then be channeled to a network called Tor.

Tor is a free open-source software designed to protect your online activities by bouncing your communications around a random distributed network of relays. This way, it prevents anyone watching your Internet connection from finding out what sites you have visited and also prevents the sites you visited from knowing your actual physical location.

You will easily realize this because the moment you run Tails on the computer, the Internet browser will pop up to show you the IP address it has chosen for you. And it is anywhere on earth but your current location.

Tails protects you from attacks as it uses the state-of-the-art cryptographic tools to encrypt your files and communications such as emails and instant messaging. And when you are done with your online activities, you will not leave any trace of the Tails system or what you did on the computer.

That is why Tails boasts its system as being “amnesic”: it allows you to work on sensitive documents on any computer and protects you from data recovery after shutdown. This is possible because Tails is configured with special care to not use the hard disks on the computer. The only storage space used by Tails is the RAM memory, which is automatically erased when the computer shuts down.

Some geek friends caution that Tails, or Tors for that matter, is still penetrable by some sophisticated hackers. However, the general agreement is that it is one of the best, most effective and easy-to-use defensive tools currently available for the masses. A little inconvenient but it still beats living a highly vulnerable cyber lifestyle at sensitive times.

(Vanson Soo runs an independent business intelligence and commercial investigations practice specialized in the Greater China region. Email:

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