Protection against the Dark Arts: Ways to better control social content

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on October 10, 2013

From The News Desk

Even before it became known that the NSA was tracking citizens' online movements, Web users have been looking for ways to control the information they disseminate online. Since Instragram's controversy over its updated terms of service, people have been looking for ways to share information online while not handing it over to third parties.

But, in this age where the federal government collects heaps of metadata about damn near anyone, is it even possible to know who has what information?

A few weeks back reports surfaced about the "dark social network" the NSA has created with this information. According to The New York Times this includes "bank codes, insurance information, Facebook profiles, passenger manifests, voter registration rolls and GPS location information, as well as property records and unspecified tax data."

Through this data the government can draw a "complete picture of a person's network" In essence, it's a computerized map the government can easily access of every which way a person has connected with someone else. And by "person," this could easily mean you.

How can one escape?

Even before this scandal, networks have been around that attempt to give users a chance to both share information yet maintain control of who can see and access what. These apps allow people to share photos with each other while not giving the rights of the photos to the platform itself. They also allow for better control over who can see what, instead of Facebook's vague "friends" and "friends of friends," or Google's "circles."

Here's how some apps and programs have responded to better divert being an active member of the Dark Social Network.


Diaspora emerged in 2010 as one of the first Kickstarter darlings. It raised more than $200,000 even though its goal was merely $10,000, touting itself as an "open source personal web server to protect and share all of your stuff online." In short, it's a Web platform for sharing information that allows users to have say over what is shared and who can see it.

Think of it as the Anti-Facebook.

Since its campaign, the project appeared to have stagnated with reports surfacing about its failure. In August 2012, its developers handed over their project to the online community as whole, that is, anyone who wanted to take a crack at resurrecting it. This meant that volunteer developers were asked to sign on and help build out the architecture. Over the last year, it appears these devs have been able to make improvements to the "community-run distributed social network."

While the project is still not yet finished, the community has released a blog entry last month exhibiting its progress. According to it, the platform is now open. While the "community" writes about its constant site improvements, it is also working to enlist more users.


Internet security evangelists have always believed that there needs to be better information security. Following the initial Snowden leaks earlier this year, the public began to catch on too.

The Pirate Bay has been one of the most outspoken members of the open-sourced online community. It was one of the most well-known proponents for a more open-sourced internet. Its now infamous file sharing site has been blocked in numerous countries, as well as its founders put on trial. So it's no surprise that its co-founder Peter Sunde began working on an anti-NSA surveillance app back in July.

He unveiled his plan to build Hemlis (which is Swedish for "secret"), a mobile messaging app claiming to have the most advanced encryption technologies, and asked people to help it get built via a crowdfunding campaign. The campaign launched July 9 and surpassed its $100,000 goal by the 10th.

According to Hemlis's blog, the app will use encrypted tunnels between countries to avoid surveillance. Each phone will encrypt the messages then connect them, via its own servers in countries that aren't notorious for intercepting servers (er, not the US). At the same time, he has not divulged complete details of his encryption. He says this is because he isn't "really interested in the flame war" that the crypto-community will make, as online encryption is a hotly-contested issue for anyone with a stake in it. is similar to Hemlis in that it provides a space for users to send messages to each other. But instead of focusing on the mechanisms encrypting the information, its emphasis is on the control of who can see what. creates a way for users to send messages to individual users, groups, or just notes for the him or herself.

The website claims all communications are "encrypted and secure," but isn't solely tailored for online security evangelists. The way the site explains its features (it emphasizes "control," not "security"), its target users are people who want to make sure they send know exactly who receives the content they send.


For those who want to ensure that their phone call metadata isn't being intercepted there's the RedPhone network. This Android app offers users telephone call encryption to contact other RedPhone users through wifi or data plans, using an encryption protocol called ZRTP. It's a secure telephone calling app, but it's a network in that only RedPhone callers can call each other. So, only members of the RedPhone can partake in secure phone calls.

It is, however, an imperfect system. For example, it is not open-sourced, which means there is no way for users to directly verify the code to ensure its security. is similar to in its insistence to hand over data control to the users. But instead of just providing a way for friends to send media to each other, is a network by which many apps can be integrated. The overall vision of the program is to create a network of users with a large suite of social apps that users can use with each other. All the while, like, it wrests control of the content to the users alone, and promises to not touch any data that is transmitted.

After its launch, many thought of the program as a paid Twitter service because of its focus on creating a unified messaging system on the web. Now, it's become apparent that had different plans as its hosts a slew of social apps, most of which transcend Twitter's functions.

So, it's pretty much a closed network of mobile apps whose architecture ensures that apps don't take control of users' data. But, again, it doesn't necessarily protect against other more hacking-centric third parties from gathering data. That's not, however,'s intended purpose; it is simply trying to make a unified method by which users can share information and can feel more comfortable about it. The site describes its platform simply as "One account. Many applications."

Think of it as a more structured and safer App Store.

In the end, there's always a risk of you want to share data online. This became apparent when Facebook and Instragram released their controversial terms of services. And this was magnified with the PRISM scandal.

All of these tactics will help in regaining control of your online data. But, it must be said, perhaps the best way to control your presence online is to simply not go online.

PandoDaily’s special report on antisocial networks is sponsored by Life360. Learn more about Life360 at