The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Here’s how people are changing their Internet habits to avoid NSA snooping

NSA headquarters at Fort Meade. (NSA)

This year's revelations of domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency have caused Washington Post readers to take new steps to protect their privacy online, the results of an online survey show.

"I've begun educating myself on internet security and privacy," one reader wrote. In an atmosphere of increased concern about surveillance, users have adopted privacy-enhancing technologies, ditched services they deemed to have inadequate privacy protections, and even cut back on using the Internet for sensitive communications altogether.

The survey was not based on a random sample, so it may not be representative of all visitors to, to say nothing of all Americans. But the 81 readers who provided in-depth responses provided a fascinating glimpse of how privacy-conscious users have reacted to Ed Snowden's revelations.

The privacy-enhancing tactic mentioned by the most readers was to avoid the use of mainstream cloud computing services, especially Gmail. "I deleted everything from my gmail account and switched to an account that comes with a domain I own," wrote one reader. The individual uses a desktop e-mail client and avoids "leaving my e-mail on [the] server any longer than necessary."

About 17 other users took similar precautions, halting or reducing their use of Dropbox, Yahoo Mail, and other cloud computing services. These precautions were presumably a reaction to the revelations of the NSA's PRISM program, which gives the NSA access to the contents of Gmail and other cloud Internet services.

Almost a dozen users also reported that they had switched from mainstream search engines like Google or Yahoo to DuckDuckGo. Unlike its larger competitors, this independent search engine doesn't track its users. That means the company wouldn't have much information to share if the NSA came knocking.

Several users reported installing privacy-enhancing software on their computers. Leading the list was Tor, a network of servers that helps users anonymize their online activity. Also popular is HTTPS Everywhere, an extension for the Firefox and Chrome browsers that causes these browsers to always use the encrypted "https" version of the web's fundamental protocol when accessing Web sites that support encryption.

Several users mentioned using Ghostery, a sophisticated tool for managing and blocking the third-party cookies that Web sites use to track users from site to site. A few readers also reported that they had started experimenting with using PGP software to encrypt their e-mail communications.

The irony of asking for full names and e-mail addresses in a survey about online privacy was not lost on Switch readers. "The questionnaire can't be for real. I thought I inadvertently connected to 'the Onion,'" one reader wrote in the comment section. Other commenters described the survey as "bizarre" and "creepy."

Some survey respondants indicated that they had cut back on using the Internet to send sensitive personal information. But a much larger group told us that they hadn't changed their Internet habits at all.

"If the NSA wants to know I spend too much time researching fantasy football, hotels in Las Vegas, and the best way to roast pumpkin seeds, so be it," one wrote. "You only have something to fear if you are looking up things that the NSA would consider dangerous to US citizens."

Other respondents haven't changed their habits because they believe doing so is hopeless. "There is simply no defense against the NSA if they are targeting you," one reader claimed. "I accept that I am a minnow swimming in a pool full of sharks," wrote another.

Added a third respondent: "I always add the following to my emails 'Hey NSA, go f--k yourselves.'"