In a recent interview, Edward Snowden unveiled his top five security tools that he uses all the time to protect his communications and devices against surveillance and hacking. These include the Tor anonymizing network, the Signal private messenger, Off-The-Record (OTR) encryption protocol, TAILS, the portable anonymity-focused operating system, and Qubes OS, the operating system that offers security through compartmentalization.
Tor is an anonymizing network that can provide different IP addresses from around the world to anyone who wants to hide their location. The difference between Tor and a VPN is that Tor is more like a "chain VPN," because your data travels encrypted through multiple nodes situated in different locations of the world, making it difficult for most people, companies, or even countries to track you.
Although it's not an anonymity magic-bullet or immune to state-level targeting, Tor is by far the most privacy-friendly tool out there that anyone who doesn't like tracking can use, from regular people looking to escape the tracking of advertisers to journalists who want to hide their research or sources from the state.
In one of the leaked Snowden documents, the NSA classified Tor as "the king of high-secure, low-latency Internet anonymity" with "no contenders to the throne in waiting." As such, there's no surprise that this would be Edward Snowden's favorite tool to use to protect his privacy.
At its core, Tor is just a network, but multiple types of products have been built on top of it, including a browser, which is a fork of Firefox ESR with a few plugins meant to enhance security and privacy such as NoScript and HTTPS Everywhere.
There is also SecureDrop, which is another Tor-based tool first created by Aaron Swartz and Kevin Poulsen under the name DeadDrop to help whistleblowers and media entities communicate with each other securely. Organizations such as New Yorker, ProPublica, The Intercept, The Guardian and Washington Post use it.
One of the developers from The Intercept also created OnionShare, a Tor-based tool meant to facilitate anonymous sharing of files of any size.
Recently, the Tor Project announced the Tor Messenger as well, which hides the location of those communicating and encrypts the data end-to-end using OTR.
Signal, which launched originally as TextSecure and RedPhone on the Android platform and then came to iOS, and more recently Android as well, is Snowden's and other security experts' end-to-end encrypted messenger of choice.
Thanks to its default end-to-end encryption, ease of use, asynchronous capabilities (which allows for messages to be sent even after the recipient goes offline), group end-to-end encryption, encrypted call support, and a well-respected team of cryptographers behind it, many believe it's the state-of-the-art in private communications right now.
Its text encryption protocol has already been adopted by Silent Circle in its Silent Phone app, and Whatsapp (although Whatsapp doesn't let users verify each other cryptographically, which means the encryption could be easily removed either by Whatsapp itself or a man-in-the-middle attack, without the users knowing about it).
Signal is also open source, unlike Silent Phone and Whatsapp, which makes it harder for potential backdoors to hide in the code. The app currently exists only on Android and iOS, but a Chrome extension will come soon, too.
Off-The-Record (OTR), not to be confused with Google Hangouts' own "Off The Record," which has nothing to do with the encryption mechanism employed by OTR here, and may or may not keep remnants of people's communications on Google's servers, has been the end-to-end encryption protocol of choice for the past decade, before Signal arrived.
OTR is one of the encryption protocols that also poses major problems to the NSA and law enforcement because they can't crack it, according to some leaked documents unveiled last year by Jacob Appelbaum from the Tor Project.
It was designed to be a more modular protocol that can be integrated as a plugin into many different instant messengers, both on desktop and mobile. Although this gives OTR great flexibility, in practice it also means that it could be supported by messengers that besides using OTR, have otherwise weak security and are vulnerable to attacks.
In other words, not all OTR clients are created equal, and if you use an IM that uses OTR, then you should pick one that's also serious about security in general. Apps that can use Tor include ChatSecure on mobile and Tor Messenger on the desktop.
The Amnesic Incognito Live System (TAILS) is an OS built entirely around the idea of sending and receiving all the Internet traffic through the Tor network. It's designed to be portable, so you can boot it from a DVD, USB drive or an SD card.
The DVD option can also be used to enhance the security of the system, because no malware can persist inside the OS. Worse case scenario, the malware will reside in RAM until you reboot. However, this option also has a disadvantage. Bugs are often found in TAILS, just like in any other operating system. When that happens, you have to update the OS, unless you want to remain vulnerable to those bugs. That means you have to write a new DVD with the latest version every time.
That's why TAILS is suitable in more extreme situations where using it is more of a one-off thing, rather than it being your main operating system. For instance, it would be a good choice for a whistleblower looking to expose wrongdoing and send documents to the media.
For those who want a highly secure operating system that they can use everyday that also comes with an option to "Torify" all traffic, there's Qubes OS. This OS can create secure virtual machines on the fly for work, banking, personal activities, or disposable VMs that you only use one time to open a risky file, and then completely wipe them from your system.
Qubes OS also comes with a Whonix template, which can be used as a Torified virtual machine that you can use whenever you want to hide your activities from tracking. You can also delete that VM and start a new one to give you much of the security you would get from using TAILS on a DVD. However, the advantage of Qubes OS is that you can also use it for more normal activities, while still protecting yourself against the daily dangers of malware infections.
These are the software tools that Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, and now a whistleblower on the run, uses. The best part is they are all tools anyone can use, too, to protect their daily privacy and security against all sorts of bad actors.
Lucian Armasu joined Tom’s Hardware in early 2014. He writes news stories on mobile, chipsets, security, privacy, and anything else that might be of interest to him from the technology world. Outside of Tom’s Hardware, he dreams of becoming an entrepreneur.