Is the U.S. government spying on you right now? I mean right now. Not last week, or two years ago when the world found out about a widespread wiretapping program.
It's impossible to know, frankly. In the new Snowden movie, it's more than a suggestion--it's an undeniable fact. It has happened before and it will happen again.
The story of whistleblower Edward Snowden, played with impeccable acting prowess by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a role tailor-made for his every-man persona, comes to some serious dramatic conclusions based on real-life events.
One of the most disconcerting plot lines involves a piece of tape.
Snowden is in an apartment and he freaks out a little. His girlfriend tries to pull the tape off of a webcam. In another scene, he puts a blanket over his head so no one can see him type his passwords. It's a movie filled with tense hysterics.
I won't ruin any of the surprise, but the entire movie hinges on one idea: Wiretapping--the intentional monitoring of third party telephone and Internet conversations--is incredibly common. And, if the U.S. government engaged in the practice on a regular basis, who else is doing it? The Chinese? The Russians? It's possible your sister in Dubuque has been wiretapped, so have your parents. You've been wiretapped.
Snowden is not an historical drama meant to tell a biographical story, it makes a blaring statement. These intrusions are happening now, which is what made Mark Zuckerberg put a tape over his webcam in a recent Facebook chat.
The question is what to do about it.
Here's my tip: It can't hurt. From everything I've ever read about the security industry, more is more. Having one virus checker on your laptop is good; having one on your server is better; having one that runs on the network itself is even better. Using encrypted email is annoying, sometimes impractical, and even tends to be overkill if you are sending recipes to grandma, but it can't hurt. If you don't use encrypted email, the chances of someone stealing your bank login information goes up, even if it's a small amount. Another option is to always close the lid on your laptop, even if you have it turned off and you're planning to sit and play Xbox. (The movie also makes the point that wiretapping can work even if a laptop screen is off.)
More importantly, if you have a laptop sitting out in the open during an investor briefing about your company plans, or you are meeting with a lawyer to talk about a legal problem, or you decide to hold a meeting with every employee and explain how you have to fire everyone, then putting a piece of tape over a webcam might be a good idea. You might even consider moving the laptop out to another room. It's easy to become fearful about this topic, but the issue is not one to dismiss out of hand. Companies are breached. Information is stolen. Data is compromised.
In security, it's also easy to sit idle. You figure no one will ever take over your Twitter account so you don't bother using two-factor authentication. You avoid running a filter on your home router because you can't imagine anyone with access ever accessing an illegal site. (Then, your neighbor taps in and does just that.) The main lesson here is that we're living in an age of security trauma. Criminals are sending out phishing emails trying to steal your credit card. Hackers are recording live feeds from webcams and figuring out when you are not home.
My advice is to go an extra step. It all starts with a piece of tape.