It feels like stories of large-scale hacking and security attacks are everywhere.
The U.S. government has formally accused Russia of launching a cyber attack in a bid to harm Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
In late 2016, Yahoo announced it was the victim of the biggest hacking incident ever. The attack, which actually happened in 2013, affected roughly one billion user accounts and resulted in the theft of email addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth and passwords. Perhaps the most disturbing part of the whole incident: Yahoo users didn’t find out about the breach until three years after it happened.
Email is notoriously insecure. The uncomfortable truth is that if you use email, someone has probably already accessed your private data simply because anyone savvy enough to intercept a message not protected by an encryption key can read it. Whether you’re sending baby photos to family or sensitive client documents to colleagues, this matters.
Encryption as a privacy solution is not new, but it’s been slow to go mainstream. Plenty of us realize the way we choose to communicate is not secure, but lack the resources or know-how to protect ourselves. But that’s starting to change.
Here’s why encryption is the future of online communication.
Encrypted messaging apps have arrived
WhatsApp, one of the most popular web messaging apps in the world, now claims to offer end-to-end encryption as part of their service. Its one billion users don’t have to opt in; the company says messages are automatically encrypted as long as the app is updated.
Facebook, WhatsApp’s parent company, has also rolled out encrypted communications. But in the case of Facebook Messenger, you need to manually switch over to the Secret messages function.
Clearly, the demand for encryption is growing. Unfortunately, it’s still too good to be true. These companies aren’t living up to their encryption claims. In the case of WhatsApp, the company owns the encryption keys, instead of the user, meaning they could unscramble any message simply by changing the encryption key.
Even worse, WhatsApp is now the target of a lawsuit from a German consumer group that alleges the company shares its private user lists with Facebook.
In general, messaging apps with encryption offer a bit of privacy protection, but because they can’t control the devices people use, everyone is still at risk. It’s far more secure to rely on a trusted email encryption provider.
Encrypted email is getting easier to use
The public is finally coming around to the notion that email encryption isn’t all that complex for users. And unlike messaging apps, email encryption on a device such as a BlackBerry is actually secure.
Encryption essentially means scrambling a message sent over the internet so that anyone without a password — called an encryption key — is unable to view it. The email looks like gibberish without the encryption key.
Luckily, email users don’t need to create these encryption keys themselves or be particularly tech savvy. They just need to purchase a reliable service that does it for them. In many cases, this simply means purchasing a phone, SIM card and email encryption service from a reputable provider.
The phone user has two encryption keys: a private one that only they know, and a public one that other people need to communicate with them. Sending encrypted email is much like sending regular email, with the addition of the handful of straightforward steps to enter your encryption passwords.
We’re waking up to our right to privacy as citizens
We’re becoming increasingly aware that we’re under constant surveillance, often from government, to track our movements and even censor speech. Troubling new legislation enacted late last year in the UK will give law enforcement and intelligence agencies the authority to “conduct online surveillance, hack into devices deemed relevant to investigations, and make technology companies provide access to data about their users.”
Digital communication also crosses many borders, meaning that even if you’re comfortable with the level of surveillance in your own country, you could become the target of a foreign government’s surveillance or hacking tactics.
Even if you have nothing to hide, you still have a right to digital privacy. Email encryption won’t stop your emails from being intercepted, but it will prevent those intercepted emails from being read.
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