Ask-A-Techie, Where you can have all of your questions answered.

Am I on the Internet? Probably... And so is NSA

Posted by Chris Allard on Tue, Jun 16, 2015


Are you on the internet? For about 87% of Americans at any given time, YES ! I had a great conversation with a new customer today. His wife's computer is in our shop for a diagnostic and they called in today to add a service request and a question about this.

He was asking about those seemingly constant Adobe update request pop ups. He thought that if the NO was highlighted on the User Account Control prompt ("do you want this program to make changes to this computer? ") question, then you should never do it. I informed him that it was on the NO by default and you can choose either yes or no (ONE problem solved!). He was concerned because he stated that he was not on the internet at the time. This made me wonder... I asked if the computer was plugged into the internet by a cable and it was. His question at that point was " Am I on the internet?".

I can see how this might be confusing. Most computer programs are not running unless you open them, so there is a misconception that you are not connected to the internet unless you open your browser. However, when you power on your computer, it will run a self test of all devices. Then when you log into your desktop, the proverbial flood gates open, and your computer begins talking and handshaking other computers (such as Microsoft's servers) soon after. There are so many critical system tools and services that require a connection to the world wide web that this handshaking has become much more commonplace in modern operating systems. The only way to be 100% sure you are not connected to the web and sending/receiving packets of information is to "air-gap" your computer by disabling all of its network adapters and disconnecting any and all ethernet cables and networking devices to be sure.

But why would you want to be disconnected or air-gapped? Privacy is one major concern, and it is a legitimate one given the US National Security Agency's habit (and policy) of eavesdropping on virtually every open and unencrypted network stream within the US and abroad and sifting through such data and metadata for, well, whatever they want to find (and will never disclose to users like us).

We can never fault our clients, friends, and family for wanting their privacy on the web, and they are not paranoid at all. The reach of NSA's spying is astounding and alarming, and the cooperation from many major online services means that very few people are safe from this type of intrusion. An ounce of prevention goes a long way in this context, and if you are concerned, you may be interested in how to keep your privacy intact. There are many ways, but the most powerful and surefire ways are to cover your tracks by using Incognito mode in a browser like Chrome (but don't be entirely misled, Chrome was co-opted by Google, which is one of the more cooperative companies the NSA receives data from), Private sessions in a browser like Firefox, in conjunction with the use of Tor and a VPN or proxy service. And throw in the use of a completely amnesic operating system that you can run from a CD-ROM or USB drive such as T.A.I.L.S. (The Amnesic Incognito Live System). Of course, all of those tools used in combination will give you a very good amount of security and privacy, but keep in mind you need to change your habits somewhat, like refusing to enter actual personal info on websites (or making up fake identities for yourself instead) if you really want to cover your tracks.

If you've ever wanted to find out who you are giving personal info to and to what extent, check out a couple of these great tools online to help you see who and what is out there capturing it. There is a great site calle Me & My Shadow which lets you see what you're "digital shadow" looks like. And if you want to see who sees these bits of your digital shadow, try this amazing Firefox browser extension, Lightbeam. It shows you who collects that data from each of the sites you visit and draws a map of your connected "partners" who are interested in it.

Are you concerned about what information is collected about you on the internet? Tell us about it here.


Tags: Network Security, IT, router, Internet, The cloud