What Is the NSA? What You Should Know, and Why You Should Care.

The NSA (National Security Agency) has been in the news numerous times over the past few years, but many people are still not fully aware of what it is, why its actions are controversial, and why now, more than ever, we should care about what it is up to.

What Exactly Is the NSA?

NSA stands for National Security Administration, but the name itself doesn't tell you much about what it actually does. Obviously, the nation's security is its focus, but it's the focus of the military, the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), and the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) as well, right? Well, a few things set the NSA apart from those other groups. First, although its duties may overlap with or be relevant to some types of CIA missions, such as collecting foreign intelligence, the NSA does not use covert operatives as the CIA does. Its work is strictly signals intelligence. Signals intelligence (SIGINT) refers to any type of information gathered by intercepting communications between people. Because the NSA is so SIGINT oriented, it's also in charge of breaking codes and the like. Makes sense, right?

Why Is the NSA in the News So Much?

Because you wouldn't expect the government to release foreign SIGINT publically (until declassified), it seems like there wouldn't be very many newsworthy things to say about the NSA. You might hear an announcement of new leadership or something but nothing like the current torrent of headlines. The NSA is in the news because it's in trouble, big trouble. The collection of foreign intelligence is just the tip of the iceberg. It was also doing something else, something far more sinister. It was collecting intelligence on American citizens, and not just a few of us, ALL of us. Everything you've ever done online, every phone call you've made, and every email you've sent could now be sitting in a sort of raw intelligence mass storage thanks to a project called PRISM. To make PRISM work, the NSA gained access to some important servers, those that belong to some of the most important communications companies in the United States. Included were companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, AOL, YouTube, Apple, and Skype. (Many of these companies deny knowledge of the NSA collecting information from their servers.) It's almost impossible to convey the scope of PRISM. Some estimate that the NSA was collecting more than fifty thousand domestic only communications a year. The government pays $20 million a year to get this information, and it sinks $8 billion into the NSA yearly. That's not a typo: 8 billion dollars!

What's the Big Deal?

If you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to hide, right? So say those that support this type of broad, warrantless collection of intelligence on domestic targets. Guess what, I do have some things to hide, or at least, things that I don't want a bunch of strangers in Washington, D.C. poring over. I'm willing to bet you do, too. Everyone does. It's not "hiding" to avoid disclosing every single aspect of your life to the government. Do you really want that Google search for the embarrassing stomach flu symptoms you had collected by the NSA? Do you want it to know that you're 35 and still subscribe to Seventeen on your Kindle? Do you want it to know that you Google Jennifer Lawrence pictures every day… sometimes twice a day? We all have things we prefer to keep private, or things we only share with our closest confidants. It's not just that the NSA could figure out the top 10 most embarrassing things about you that's the problem. Would you like someone going through your private journal, where you shared your thoughts about the loss of a loved one or your anxiety about a first date? Maybe you're the exception. You're perfect! You have nothing to hide. Collecting your data without a warrant is still a big deal. Privacy is part of our inherent right to be free from government oppression. People act differently when someone is watching and judging; studies have shown this to be true, repeatedly. Maybe someone cancels therapy appointments because he or she doesn't want that information intercepted. Maybe those weekly hour-long calls with your bestfriend about anything and everything aren't such a good idea anymore… and if you don't mind, the other party might. As Americans, we have to protect the rights of others, as well, or our freedom means very little.

What Can I Do to Maintain My Own Privacy Today?

You can't do much about Google giving your search terms to the NSA if it wants them. However, you can protect yourself from government data collection from another angle by using a VPN (Virtual Private Network). A VPN gives you more privacy in a number of ways. It hides your location by changing your IP address. You can even spoof being in another country. In addition, your VPN takes all the data from your Internet activity and encrypts it, which means no one can collect it. Therefore, it's also a way to stay protected from hackers. It's your very own secure connection to the Internet. There is one caveat though. While your IP address is masked while you're browsing, some VPN providers keep logs that could trace the spoofed IP address back to you, so make sure you choose one that doesn't do that. ZenMate, for example, doesn't log your personal data at all, so if the NSA did come knocking to ask for a list of its users, it wouldn't have any information to offer. Furthermore, being based in Berlin, Germany, we as a company are not required to follow the strict laws regarding data collection by the federal government as US-based providers are. Protect your privacy; connect with a VPN.

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