It’s Time to Finally Take Encryption Seriously!

We have known for a long time that the American intelligence agencies don’t flinch at violating our privacy. Edward Snowden’s revelations have forced some small reforms at the NSA and elsewhere; but those small improvements will doubtless be rolled back, and XKeyscore, PRISM and, ECHELON will be replaced by even more invasive and dangerous technologies. They will be controlled by a government with strong ties to White Nationalists, militias, and various hate groups. In other times and places, governments have circulated death lists of dissenters to paramilitary organizations. I don’t think that’s likely in the USA; but I also think that as citizens, we need to act to protect ourselves from the abuse of power.

The only effective tool against government surveillance is end-to-end encryption of communication. Even encryption is likely to be inadequate against a targeted attack by the NSA’s supercomputers and tactical operations; but when it comes to the mass collection of data, properly-practiced encryption protects you from being targeted for more detailed analysis. As a by-product, encrypting your communications makes it a little bit harder (but not much!) for corporations to track your preferences, and also adds a little bit of protection from other malicious agents.

The basic building blocks of encrypted communication have been available for a long time, but until recently encryption was clumsy and error-prone. Encryption of email is still somewhat challenging. In the last year, though, two excellent solutions, and one adequate one, have emerged for messaging. I’ll talk about all these in a minute, but first let’s quickly review how encryption works.

Encryption Review

Almost all contemporary encryption is “dual-key” – each person in a conversation has both a private and a public “key”. If I want to send you a message, I encrypt it with your public key. After that, even I can’t read my message – only you can, with your private key, which you don’t show to anyone.

This sounds simple, but it is actually quite difficult to implement encrypted communication in a simple, easy-to-understand interface. Software developers have struggled with this for a long time. It’s worth reading a little more about this:

Messaging

The messaging landscape has been changing rapidly. After a long delay, there is now really good encryption available, but some of the interfaces are a little confusing or misleading.

  • Signal allows you to send text messages and make phone calls with full, end-to-end, dual-key encryption. You should switch to it immediately. You won’t be able to make encrypted phone calls over the regular phone network – you will need to use data instead.
  • As of April, WhatsApp now offers dual-key encryption by default, including a key-verification interface. Among the mainstram apps, WhatsApp is probably the best option, but it’s not perfect, and Signal is better if you can use it.
  • In June, Facebook Messenger enabled end-to-end encryption. Encryption is turned off by default and has to be turned on for every conversation, so this is not as good as WhatsApp, but if your social media life mostly moves through Facebook, you can enable encryption, and it’s worth doing.
  • Google’s new Allo messenging app also permits end-to-end encryption, but it’s not on by default, and it’s a bit confusing to use. Signal is still ldefinitely preferable.

Email

Email is tricky. For most people, Thunderbird plus EnigMail is probably the best option, but it is confusing to use and it also “leaks” information (as will always be the case for email sent through traditional channels). Various projects to fix email were announced in the wake of the Snowden revelations, but the onse I know about have mostly stopped development. It’s a hard nut to crack.

Still: you should aim to encrypt a relatively high percentage of your emails if you can. It’s not good enough to just encrypt a few; the important ones need to be masked by the trivial ones. And encrypting your emails also helps to protect the journalists, activists, ando thers who need to encrypt their communication for their own protection. We encrypt not just for ourselves, but to preserve essential freedoms for others.

Over the next few months I hope to transition to encryption in most of my messaging; that means that, if you want to be in touch with me online, you’ll need to start figuring this stuff out too. Let me know what I can do to help!