I've criticized the general lack of substantive thought on the NSA issue, whose discussions have mostly been concerned with rhetoric, hyperbole, and knee-jerk ideological shibboleths rather than intelligent consideration of options, so now I'll take the heretical step of meeting my own standards. Below are our action options, elaborated well beyond the obvious.
I. Governments can't gather information that isn't there.
Within this fact is a vast spectrum of options under our immediate control as individuals.
1. Don't communicate electronically.
This is the most drastic, "going off the grid" option that shuts off a lot of social, political, and economic opportunities in favor of increased privacy. Given how frequently analogies to totalitarianism are cavalierly thrown around, one would think this would be a popular option. One would think. But the overwhelming consensus proven by action seems to be that while liberty must not be sacrificed to security, sacrificing it to opportunity is another matter entirely. We are more than willing to go on websites supported by Google ads to complain about that very thing and its nth-degree manifestations.
The irony can't be lost on any thoughtful person: "This screed about internet privacy has been brought to you by Google Adsense technologies." Every time I do a Google search for technical specs on Ferraris or Lamborghinis, the internet believes I'm rich and starts feeding me ads for $30,000 watches, pleasure boats, and island vacations. Every time I search for liberal political content, the ads all around me are suddenly for books by investigative journalists and liberal commentators. Right now the internet is my obsequious servant, carefully studying my tiniest whims to know how best to serve me. But eventually, we know, the situation will reverse and their computers will know us so well that the people who control them will use the information to make us serve them. That's not a new insight, especially to one versed in science fiction.
The option to unplug from Skynet while you still have the chance is there, so decide: Are you certain enough of where this will lead to cut yourself off from all the shiny objects and live a Luddite existence - ditch the cellphone, unplug from all networking, use only cash, etc. - or is future history slightly more complicated than an uninterrupted march toward The Matrix? You decide whether the rewards of this explosive new form of jungle are worth the risks, even as you watch nightmare things with sharp teeth evolve before your eyes. But be aware of an important paradox: Appearing to be hiding tends to draw more attention than appearing to be indifferent.
2. Explore privacy technology.
The data you generate is only useful to advertisers and government agencies if it can be identified as belonging to a single person - otherwise it's a bunch of isolated information with no connective tissue. If the internet knows that one person is searching for both traffic laws and personal injury attorneys, it can deduce that this person has been in an auto accident and is exploring a lawsuit against the other driver, and any government agency looking at that information can deduce the same. But if all that's known is that someone, somewhere looked up traffic laws, and someone, somewhere looked up personal injury attorneys, there is no correlation. Not only could it not be connected to you personally, but couldn't even be connected to some single hypothetical person that could be tracked as an unidentified user.
Now, let's be clear: Perfect privacy is a physical impossibility. While you are interacting with the universe, you leave traces that can be correlated to deduce facts about you, and as technology advances the amount of information that can be extracted from limited datasets increases. This is generally a good thing: It's how scientific progress occurs, in everything from figuring out the climate of an exoplanet based on nothing but a little bit of starlight, to diagnosing internal diseases based on aggregate analysis of diagnostics. But it also steepens the power curve between those with skills and resources and those without. So privacy technology occurs in tiers, with the most secure also being the least convenient, and ironically attracting attention from the most skilled malefactors.
The highest security technology requires professional-level skills and intuitive grasp of networking, such that either you or the people you hire to protect you are basically drawn from the same pool as those who work for intelligence agencies as cryptographers. The programs and services you get from this level are all custom-made, incredibly expensive, and require putting a lot of faith in a small number of people who are perhaps ethically flexible and possibly mercenary.
Any ordinary person without a lot of money or political activities who would go to such extremes would be equivalent to the folks who walk around in everyday life armed and wearing kevlar vests, and they're figures of fun among the professionals. Basically if you took this option, you'd simply be hiring an individual or small group of individuals to know everything about you rather than largely anonymous data-sorting programs. On the other hand, they could be held legally accountable for how they use that knowledge.
Because national institutions snoop on internet traffic at the telecom hardware level, there is no software solution you can use to hide completely from them - no matter what your data says, if they look deeply enough at the movement of your data through their systems they will find where you're physically connecting from. So the very act of connecting to a network creates points of vulnerability where you can be traced. However, you can make it slightly more difficult to do so, and hide the signifiers that would normally bring someone's traffic to the attention of snoopers in the first place. No matter how adeptly your professional security people hide your traffic, though, ultimately there is a physical connection occurring somewhere. Even if it dead-ends at a wireless router in a coffee bar, there are cameras in and around that place that show who was there at a given time.
Below the custom-security level, there are networking services such as proxy servers whereby you mask the superficial origins of your data by routing it through a private network that generically masks all its users. Once again, this has no effect whatsoever on the physical hardware layer, and origins that might be obscure just looking at the data would be plain as day to the telecom that moves it. What this means is that the NSA can still see your connections, but you sharply reduce the amount of data about you they receive from Google and other web-layer services. On the other hand, you don't know what degree of extra scrutiny they give to users of proxy servers, so it's largely a guess whether using them would provide a net benefit where government spying is concerned.
Moreover, you're trusting your data to the complete knowledge and control of the proxy service and its employees, which is yet again just substituting the security of anonymity in a crowd to that of a financial relationship with an elite minority. Still, a commercial proxy service is a bit more accountable and reliable than a mercenary hacker making a custom network for you, and it does provide solid security against ordinary data threats such as identity thieves and carding rings. You can also buy commercial encryption software, but rest assured that that would not stop any major intelligence agency in the world. They don't have to decrypt what you're saying to know who you're saying it to, and from that and other data deduce what's being said. And then, also, all they need to have the keys to that software is to spy on the software companies and bribe their employees, and that's very likely already SOP.
3. If you're planning political action that might be disrupted, don't telegraph your intentions all over the network.
In every dissenting grassroots political movement, there is a dilemma between open communication and operational security. The more widely your community knows about something, the more people may participate; but this also makes it easier for hostile institutions to take measures to monitor, prevent, and disrupt your activities. This is nothing new: The theoretical study and practical implementation of both insurgency and counterinsurgency - in both armed and peaceful manifestations - goes back well into the 19th century.
If you intend to be active on a level where institutions regard you as a threat, you should take the time to study materials on the subject and on electronic security so that you have an awareness of your and your organization's vulnerabilities. Make a plan for how to manage information exposure, and experiment with it - find ways to test that exposure periodically and adjust accordingly. I shouldn't have to say this, but I guess I do: If you carry a cellphone and/or drive a car with GPS, your location and movements are known, period. Be aware of that fact.
II. All the data in the world means dick without the power to use it.
Personally, I would feel a lot less threatened by a lion with no teeth or claws than one who merely has to work a little harder to find their prey. So I'd say it's basically obvious that dealing with out-of-control police, prosecutors, and prison powers in this country ranks infinitely ahead of surveillance as a civil liberties priority. Moreover, abuses of these authorities are far more commonplace and actually destroy lives, both through outright murder (shootings and executions) and through false prosecution and imprisonment. They also oppress entire communities through constant police harassment and racial profiling. So there is some urgency involved that doesn't really apply to the NSA.
4. Legislatively or by ballot referendum, remove all immunities that have been granted to police and prosecutors by right-wing judicial activism over the years.
If a police officer assaults, murders, robs, or harasses a citizen while on the job, that citizen should be able to get the same justice (if not more) that they would if they were victimized in the same ways by someone who isn't wearing a badge. Police are not supposed to be a special class of people - they are supposed to be members of the community who perform a specific function that inherently requires upholding people's rights, and the same goes for criminal prosecutors (hence why they're often referred to as "The People" in court cases).
If they arrest peaceful protesters without cause, that's not merely a violation of procedure - that's aggravated assault, kidnapping, false imprisonment, etc. In other words, it's a bunch of felonies calling for jail time, not merely a lapse in judgment calling for (at most) a notation in a file. Violating people's rights is a crime and should be treated as a crime, no matter how small the violation, in the same way that ordinary citizens are arrested for petty violations of law.
5. Malicious prosecution should be a crime.
This is another thing that is currently treated as a civil matter, and that prosecutors only avoid to the extent they think it might hold back their career advancement - which is to say, it doesn't, and usually does the opposite, so prosecutorial misconduct is rampant. People who exercise authority under color of law must be even more stringently subject to those laws, not exempt from them. If you prosecute some 13-year-old who lives next to a state border for federal felonies because he stole a candy bar and then walked home to his house across the border, you belong in fucking jail yourself. Another example would be the prosecutor in the Aaron Swartz case. Hold police and prosecutors accountable for violating people's rights, and it won't much matter what the government knows - unless they get into blackmail, which is a treacherous game at best.
6. Strictly manage information flow between intelligence and law enforcement.
The "fusion centers" must be closed - the very concept is lawless and abusive. If intelligence knows something about a large-scale crime relevant to national security that is urgent to communicate, we would be insane to say they shouldn't share it. But it's exceedingly rare that circumstances justify such communications, and so they should only occur rarely. If intelligence knows something about Bob the local drug dealer planning to pick up his $10,000 shipment, too fucking bad - that's information that's going to stay clandestine unless the police figure it out themselves independently. And if prosecutors attempt to take their chances in court using illegally obtained information to go after petty crimes, charge them with complicity in illegal wiretapping and hacking. Also charge any law enforcement personnel who sought, solicited, or deliberately received the information.
III. Stand up for yourself.
There are opportunities to prove how serious you are about this, if the issue is truly a peremptory priority for you. Some of them involve personal risk.
7. Get together with likeminded people and raise the money to create your own telecom service that would refuse illegal surveillance orders.
This is obviously extremely difficult, would take a lot of time and effort to get going, and would require a lot of skills. It would be a multi-decade effort involving gradual buildup of resources, expansion into new markets, and all the while competing economically with existing providers like Verizon who enjoy massive economies of scale and in some regions monopolies. You would have to find ways around those monopolies, get them legislatively removed by referendum or litigation, and at the same time manage to operate as a going concern (whether for-profit or non-profit) in an environment of constant politically-motivated sabotage. If you're the kind of person who is deterred by huge challenges, you shouldn't attempt this. If you're the kind of person who is excited by huge challenges, you might consider it.
If you succeeded in building up a telecom to relevant proportions, and still kept to your principles by refusing illegal demands for information - i.e., ones not backed up by a real search warrant rather than some rubber-stamp FISA order - then you can expect to have your company's assets frozen, information seized, and you personally arrested and prosecuted. It would be at that time when you'd really start to appreciate any gains that had been made in limiting police and prosecutorial powers as described above, and even if you were convicted and sent to jail, you'd be a martyr and a hero that would have vast sources of both financial and political support while you're in prison. But then again, you might be acquitted due to jury nullification and be no less a hero, and in that case the government might think a little harder before pursuing a similar prosecution - especially if you sue them and win, and even more especially if you could have them prosecuted for misconduct as per the suggestions above.
Moreover, if you succeeded in drawing business away from major telecoms, they would feel pressure to at least put up token resistance to illegal demands from government institutions, and that would - in aggregate - add up to something, which would build up to a general expectation from consumers. The benefits of achieving this would be great, but the challenges of bringing it off - and the personal risks of attempting it - would be no less colossal.
8. Support the ACLU lawsuit.
Thanks to the Snowden leaks, the ACLU achieved standing for its lawsuit to halt the NSA spying. Supporting this effort either with financial contributions or by volunteering in whatever capacity is obvious. However, be prepared for the likelihood that the Supreme Court would rule 5-4 that up is down, and that this decision would open the floodgates. In other words, work with the ACLU and other organizations to develop a plan to deal with that contingency - don't just hope it won't happen, or plan to bitch really loudly if it does. Part of it is just having the attitude that the Constitution is not some abstruse mystical document, and that just because the Supreme Court says something doesn't make it the law: We have a written Constitution because it's a social compact, and the more people demand obedience to that compact in their daily lives, the stronger it is regardless of what is held to be true in Washington.
9. Elect a Congress that will strongly defend civil liberties.
"More and better Democrats," obviously. No, sorry, that does not include Libertarians and Teabaggers - their solution to domestic spying would be to make everyone so poor that we can't afford computers, and meanwhile do nothing to restrict police and prosecutorial powers because they're overwhelmingly used against minorities they hate. Congress is one avenue through which a number of the other law-changing suggestions can be approached, but also just generally helps by utilizing the power of checks and balances that have heretofore fallen into atrophy. And rest assured, even within the context of that atrophy, a Democratic Congress in 2014 would be a more diligent guardian of civil liberties than a GOP just trying to distract the country from their years of obstructing jobs legislation.
10. Don't make a fool of yourself and a mockery of the issue by being hysterical.
A legitimate grievance spoken by a fool or a lunatic is no less legitimate, but in politics a lot rides on association. The closer that people who speak on this issue seem to the Alex Jones / Rand Paul crowd, the less seriously they will be taken by anyone who isn't already part of that community, and the less that people in general who fundamentally agree with them will want to be associated with their efforts. Sometimes broken clocks are right, but that doesn't mean the functioning ones should emulate being broken. Nothing is gained by paranoia, as is obvious by looking at what kind of lives paranoids lead - hardly what one would call freedom. If the things you're saying sound like Infowars, it doesn't mean Infowars has gotten sane - it means you've probably fallen off the deep end and need to check your logic.
Crazy and stupid is no good to a progressive movement. Never has been, never will be. While Ben Franklin was writing insightfully about liberty vs. security, a bunch of right-wing nutbars were waging insurrection against the "tyranny" of George Washington's whiskey taxes, and a bunch of left-wing nutbars in France were chopping off people's heads for not clapping loud enough for Le Citoyen Incorruptible. Liberty cannot come from unthinking, spasmodic violence either rhetorical or literal, so if your approach to dealing with an issue like this is to compile Enemies Lists and start demarcating who you think are the True Scotsmen vs. Not True Scotsmen, you're not helping.
I have no illusions that practical explorations of options to actually do something about this issue will ever be as popular as masturbatory screeds wallowing in emotional reactions to it, but rational thought is all the more necessary when it's not being socially rewarded.