10 old-school tricks you can use to keep the NSA from spying on you

Concerned that your communiqués aren’t as private as they should be? You aren’t alone.


S.E. Smith

Internet Culture

Published Jul 16, 2014   Updated May 30, 2021, 11:02 pm CDT

Worried about NSA spying? Concerned that your communiqués aren’t as private as they should be? You aren’t alone—and you don’t have to be Angela Merkel to wonder if someone’s tapping your cellphone to find out what you’ve been ordering from the Chinese place around the corner, though your chances of being spied upon definitely go up if you’re Muslim! (Also, no, I don’t want to talk about my relationship with garlic eggplant.)

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We’ve got some hot tips for you to help keep you safe from NSA spying, so you can go on doing what you do best: Looking at amazing videos of bald eagles on the Internet and reading listicles.

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1) Typewriters

They’re not just for hipster décor anymore! Typewriters are where it’s at for keeping your most important writing safe from NSA spying. Just ask the Russians. Or the Germans. Using manual typewriters to create sensitive documents and never digitizing them allows you to keep your most classified records…classified.

2) Carrier pigeons

We get it. Sometimes you need to send messages. Your phone isn’t secure, you probably shouldn’t trust your email…why not carrier pigeons? They’re fun and easy to raise, and you can always eat the failures (assuming you can find them). You might be worried about drones, but we think you’ve got at least a year before the NSA gets smart to the carrier pigeon phenomenon—for now, you can totally pass it off as the latest urban farming trend.

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Do not, however, rely on marine creatures to carry your missives—the military’s already weaponized our friends of the ocean and they’re out for blood.  

3) Oranges

Be careful: This is only for advanced players. West Wing fans know that orange bowling is a fantastic way to send messages in close quarters (so stop IMing with someone in the same room as you, because you might as well just invite the NSA to read over your shoulder), and it’s been road-tested by political campaigns, too! Best part: You’ll be eating the evidence before the NSA has a chance to catch wind of it, leaving behind only the faint sting of citrus oil.

4) Secret Decoder Rings

The NSA may have some crack cryptographers on board, but even they are no match for the secret decoder ring. Just make sure to keep the decoder window on the bottom so it stays a secret, while your ring will look like a cryptic typographical statement. You love typography, right? You can totally pass this off.  

5) Photoshop Hijinks

Hop on board the Slenderman bus, because you’d be surprised by what you can hide in plain sight. Your secret messages will blend right in with the crowd, allowing you to convey all-important information about which BART station to meet at after work. (Wait, is the whole Slenderman thing actually an NSA conspiracy?)

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6) Well-Designed Tinfoil Hats

Again, this is for advanced players only. As the NSA wises up to our evasive tactics, it’s important to step up your game so you can avoid their mind control tactics. However, be aware that most tin foil hat designs are ineffective. You need a working Faraday Cage, as discovered by some enterprising MIT students. However, you should consider the fact that this study may actually be an elaborate ruse perpetrated by the NSA.

7) Onions

I read somewhere that onions are apparently really good for sending secret messages over the Internet, although I’m not exactly sure how that’s supposed to work. Edward Snowden used it, and he doesn’t seem to have particularly bad breath, so eating them definitely isn’t what you’re supposed to do. Do you cover your router in onion skins? Shove onions into your USB ports? If someone could get back to me, I’d really appreciate it.

8) Numbers Stations

If we’re going to be exploring throwback methods, it’s time to take a closer look at numbers stations. These mysterious ghosts of the airwaves include a voice reading long series of numbers that won’t make sense to anyone else but you…and the people who loop in on the secret. Confuse the NSA by adding in the infamous numerical sequence from “Lost.”

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9) Invisible Ink

While this isn’t going to display right in all browsers, sending emails in invisible ink is something you should definitely consider. Better yet, go old school with lemon juice. For best results with invisible ink, write a regular letter and then write the invisible one. Join an organization like Post Crossing so the NSA won’t find it completely weird that you’re sending letters in the first place, because, seriously, who does that?

10) Semaphore flags

Skip calling and texting, and get cozy with your closest neighbors. Semaphore flags are impenetrable to NSA spying, unless one of your neighbors happens to be an NSA agent. You’ll be flagging like a sailor in no time!

Photo via fotologic/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Jul 16, 2014, 9:00 am CDT