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NSA indirectly responsible for new breed of anti-spying smartphones, apps and devices

The moral and political aspects of state-level spying will be debated for years to come, but an interesting side-effect of the NSA's actions is that new business is being created specifically to protect people against spies. The question is, are consumers ready to pay for them?
October 11, 2013
NSA Building
When it comes to privacy it seems that the world is divided into two distinct camps. The “I don’t care, I have nothing to hide” camp and the “Privacy is a basic human right” lobby. Since the revelations of Edward Snowden about the NSA’s spying antics, the ethical, political and technical questions around state-sponsored mass wire-tapping and surveillance has come (again) to the forefront. Like privacy there seems to be two camps. The “I am not doing anything illegal, I don’t care” camp and the “Government shouldn’t spy on its citizens” lobby.

Each one of us belongs to one of the groups mentioned above, even not having a firm opinion or stance places us in one of the camps by default! The moral and social aspects of state-level spying will be debated for years to come, but an interesting side-effect of the NSA’s actions is that new business is being created specifically to protect people against spies.

There are already some established services that to help protect users from unwanted snooping, these include things like Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and anonymous browsing services like Tor. These services can often be used from a smartphone as well as a desktop computer, in fact Android’s VPN capabilities are quite mature and reliable.

Edward Snowden was using an encrypted email service called Lavabit so that he could communicate without the NSA knowing what he was saying. However Lavabit’s CEO decided to shutdown the service when the NSA handed him a subpoena demanding copies of Snowden’s unencrypted emails. And here is the first change to the way people are starting to use the Internet – not via services in the USA or the European Union. It is an unfortunate reality that many of the major online services that we all use are based in the USA: Google, Yahoo!, Bing and so on. There are alternatives including emails services like Countermail and NeoMailbox that offer encrypted email outside of the USA. NeoMailbox is actually based in Switzerland, a country that isn’t part of the EU and has a history of keeping secrets for its clients!

Beyond browsing and email there are also other new devices and services appearing. A few weeks ago QSAlpha launched a new Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign for its cipherphone – the Quasar IV. The Quasar IV uses QSAlpha’s new Quatrix encryption technology to help users protect their entire digital world including phone calls, email, mobile apps, SMS, and cloud storage. Although the crowdfunding didn’t go well, only about $67,000 was raised of the $3.2 million target, the phone has now gone into production thanks to an anonymous OEM which Steve Chao, the founder and CEO of QSAlpha, is calling “one of the world’s largest consumer electronics OEM manufacturers.”

In the mean time QSAlpha has developed an SD card which it is calling the QuaWorks Activator to bring cipherphone technology to anyone with an Android smartphone with a memory card slot. By inserting the card into any Android 4.0+ smartphone, owners will get access to the QuaWorks ecosystem including encrypted email, encrypted SMS messages (between two QuaWorks users) and a fully encrypted VoIP service, again between two different QuaWorks users.

The move to combat the NSA’s pervasive actions isn’t only limited to those building Ninja type phones, even eccentric millionaires are on the case.

john mcafee
It will of course be used for nefarious purposes, just like the telephone is -- John McAfee
Recently, John McAfee the founder of McAfee Anti-virus, announced at a combined technology conference and music festival, that he plans to build a device that can thwart the NSA’s surveillance techniques. The pocket-size gadget, which has been dubbed “Decentral” and will be compatible with both Android and iOS, creates decentralized, moving local networks that can’t be hacked by the NSA.

“There will be no way (for the government) to tell who you are or where you are,” said McAfee. If worried that the USA government might try to ban the device he said, “I’ll sell it in England, Japan, the Third World. This is coming and cannot be stopped.”

Paying for privacy

Although some of the services mentioned here are free, the majority of them cost money. A good VPN service costs anywhere from $5 upwards per month. The Quasar IV costs $785 to buy and McAfee’s currently non-existent device is purported to cost around $100. The question is, are people willing to pay for anti-spying technology?

The lack of funding for the Quasar IV would imply that people aren’t ready to part with their cash to stop the NSA from spying on them. Maybe there is an assumption, possibly a naive one, that the technology used for communications – including Android – should be secure to start with and so consumers aren’t ready to spend extra money making their smartphones more secure. Maybe the extra effort and perceived technical challenges in making smartphones secure is too much, or maybe there is a lethargy among consumers who ultimately realize that if the NSA turns up with a subpoena at your service provider then the government will get hold of your data. Maybe now only privately implemented security – where the keys are held only the by individual, can resist the government’s spies.

What do you think? Would you buy McAfee’s device or buy something like the QuaWorks Activator?