When CNN recently polled visitors to its site about whether they believe they have been eavesdropped upon in light of the recent revelations, first published in US Today early this May, that the National Security Agency or NSA may be compiling the world’s largest database of domestic phone calls placed and received, more than one in every 23 who responded said yes. Other polls indicate more than 50% – and some, far more – of all Americans find this practice objectionable and yet others project Americans fear the government is listening in on every call.
Add to this the fact that Internet-based telephone calls seem about as private as email – meaning not very private at all – and many net surfers are just not as crazy about making for-your-ears-only phone calls as they once were. But that may change.
Enter Phil Zimmerman, a technical guru and electronic privacy pioneer who achieved both fame and infamy, along with too much unwanted attention from the feds several years ago with a program called Pretty Good Privacy or PGP. PGP was a key-based email encryption scheme adopted by many that was hard for even the best technical minds paid by the government to defeat.
But this time, Zimmerman comes packing a beta version of software that can make it much harder for the NSA or any other agency, if they are eavesdropping, to determine the content of your calls. Zimmerman comes to it with a full education provided by how hard the government tried to take him down for promoting email privacy with PGP.
Called Zfone, the software, now in public beta, uses a new protocol called ZRTP to secure VoIP over Voice Over Internet Protocol phone communications. Some say the very best aspect of Zfone is that it does not rely on servers at all, servers which could be packed with software designed to intercept or monitor the communications that operate from them. Servers, after all, are typically offered by service providers who, under federal law, are required – when ordered to do so – to provide government officials with access to the people and services like specific communications they provide.
Instead, Zimmerman’s latest creation operates strictly peer-to-peer, making a phone call over the Internet between you and another person about as private as possible. When you don’t have a service provider, it’s much harder for the spy people to subpoena records of what you do.
Products like Zfone product come at a particular advantageous time for two main reasons. One is the aforementioned NSA phone spying story, still in some dispute, but also because Internet-based phone calls are finally coming into their own.
Those who tried net-based telephony in the mid-to-late 1990s know it was fraught with problems. If you could get a connection at all, the quality of the call could change second by second. Drop-outs and totally dropped calls were more the rule than the exception. Some of you may even remember Phil Zimmerman’s earlier VoIP venture, a little program called PGPfone that tried to do for telephony what PGP attempted for email.
Today, however, the Internet telephony platform is much more robust and far more reliable. Thus, you may want to try it again if you haven’t before – or haven’t since those early, dark days.
Yet, when you do, you may want to try using programs like Skype that allows for free Internet phone calling – nice compared to the many dimes you can drop through other VoIP programs – and Zfone (currently, however, these two programs are not compatible but who knows about the future).
Also, just as net telephony has changed, today’s ZFone is much more robust than the earlier PGPfone. This makes both telephony and communications privacy worth a second look or, more appropriate, ringy-dingy.
Scott Noth, a New Jersey-based sales person, says he relies more and more on VoIP for phone calls to reduce costs as well as the convenience of doing almost everything from his PC desktop. Noth frequently uses Skype but is now giving Zfone a test drive as well.
“It’s not like I really have anything to hide in my phone calls, unless it’s the embarrassing amount of money I lose in bets with friends on weekend games. But I just don’t like the idea of anyone possibly monitoring my private phone calls,” Noth states, “which led me to a Wired article that detailed Zfone. I’ve only used in twice yet so far, so good.”