Category Archives: Opsec

Snowden Explains “Opsec” – Operational Security for Everybody

Micah Lee and Edward Snowden, in Moscow, Russia. Photo: Sue GardnerMicah Lee and Edward Snowden, in Moscow, Russia. Photo: Sue Gardner

A few weeks ago, Micah Lee, Technologist for The Intercept and   Co-Founder and Board Member of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, went to Moscow to meet Edward Snowden (who is on the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Board).

They had been in close contact online, since January of 2013, albeit anonymously, on Ed’s end, for the first six months.

Snowden took the opportunity to explain some technical details about what he has come to refer to as “Opsec,” or “Operational Security,” a collection of a few simple best practices for security that folks can use to protect the privacy of their day to day communications.

Engaging in Opsec helps protect one’s privacy, not only against the threat of what is, to some, the merely abstract notion of “government surveillance,” but also against much scarier threats that are not so abstract. For instance, abusive relationship victims, stalking victims, or children who are at risk of being monitored by pedophiles. There are many scary scenarios, all made possible by the current lack of basic encryption on most people’s emails and text messages. In these cases, being a victim of online surveillance often translates into physical harassment or abuse in the “real world.”

Using Opsec to “reclaim your privacy” may seem confusing at first, especially to those who have not realized that their privacy is already compromised daily. But as Micah explains, “This doesn’t need to be an extraordinary lifestyle change. It doesn’t have to be something that is disruptive. It should be invisible, it should be atmospheric, it should be something that happens painlessly, effortlessly.”

In the article, Snowden outlines some Opsec basics, including:

  • Using “Signal” (“Text Secure” on Android), by Open Whisper Systems, to encrypt your text messages and phone calls. It’s very easy to install and use, instantly, on your Android or iPhone device.
  • Encrypting your laptop hard drive, so if your computer is stolen, the thief won’t also have access to all of your private data. (Micah has already written a guide for this.)
  • Using a password manager (here’s Bruce Schneier’s favorite) that helps you generate unique passwords for all of your different services and stores them for you, so you don’t have to remember them.
  • Using two-factor authentication to provide an additional level of security on your accounts.
  • Using browser plugins like HTTPS Everywhere by the EFF, to try to enforce secure encrypted communications so your data is not being passed while “electronically naked,” in transit.
  • Using adblocking software, such as Privacy Badger, by the EFF.
  • Using Tor and TorBrowser to anonymize your browsing.

A few relevant quotes from the article:

On Tor:

Lee: What do you think about Tor? Do you think that everyone should be familiar with it, or do you think that it’s only a use-it-if-you-need-it thing?

Snowden: I think Tor is the most important privacy-enhancing technology project being used today. I use Tor personally all the time. We know it works from at least one anecdotal case that’s fairly familiar to most people at this point. That’s not to say that Tor is bulletproof. What Tor does is it provides a measure of security and allows you to disassociate your physical location…

But the basic idea, the concept of Tor that is so valuable, is that it’s run by volunteers. Anyone can create a new node on the network, whether it’s an entry node, a middle router, or an exit point, on the basis of their willingness to accept some risk. The voluntary nature of this network means that it is survivable, it’s resistant, it’s flexible.

Micah: [Tor Browser is a great way to selectively use Tor to look something up and not leave a trace that you did it. It can also help bypass censorship when you’re on a network where certain sites are blocked. If you want to get more involved, you can volunteer to run your own Tor node, as I do, and support the diversity of the Tor network.]…

On Whistleblowing:

Snowden: What we do need to protect are the facts of our activities, our beliefs, and our lives that could be used against us in manners that are contrary to our interests. So when we think about this for whistleblowers, for example, if you witnessed some kind of wrongdoing and you need to reveal this information, and you believe there are people that want to interfere with that, you need to think about how to compartmentalize that.

Tell no one who doesn’t need to know.

Micah: [Lindsay Mills, Snowden’s girlfriend of several years, didn’t know that he had been collecting documents to leak to journalists until she heard about it on the news, like everyone else.]

Snowden: When we talk about whistleblowers and what to do, you want to think about tools for protecting your identity, protecting the existence of the relationship from any type of conventional communication system. You want to use something like SecureDrop, over the Tor network, so there is no connection between the computer that you are using at the time — preferably with a non-persistent operating system like Tails, so you’ve left no forensic trace on the machine you’re using, which hopefully is a disposable machine that you can get rid of afterward, that can’t be found in a raid, that can’t be analyzed or anything like that — so that the only outcome of your operational activities are the stories reported by the journalists.

Micah: [SecureDrop is a whistleblower submission system. Here is a guide to using The Intercept’s SecureDrop server as safely as possible.]…

On Simple and Practical Threat Modeling:

Snowden: …You can drive yourself crazy thinking about bugs in the walls and cameras in the ceiling. Or you can think about what are the most realistic threats in your current situation? And on that basis take some activity to mitigate the most realistic threats.

In that case, for most people, that’s going to be very simple things. That’s going to be using a safe browser. That’s going to be disabling scripts and active content…And making sure that your regular day-to-day communications are being selectively shared through encrypted means…

On How Cell Phones Track Us By Default:

Micah: People use smartphones a lot. What do you think about using a smartphone for secure communications?

Snowden: Something that people forget about cellphones in general, of any type, is that you’re leaving a permanent record of all of your physical locations as you move around. … The problem with cellphones is they’re basically always talking about you, even when you’re not using them. That’s not to say that everyone should burn their cellphones … but you have to think about the context for your usage. Are you carrying a device that, by virtue of simply having it on your person, places you in a historic record in a place that you don’t want to be associated with, even if it’s something as simple as your place of worship?