What's your secret? Encrypted instant messaging is the latest trend, from apps like BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), Telegram and Signal to Wire, Wickr and Surespot. Not forgetting Apple's iMessage and FaceTime. Before we know it, everything will be encrypted. It mostly already is.
Encryption often crops up when talking about criminals, usually painted as a tool for terrorism, but that's just spin from power grabbing politicians – we already live in an encrypted world. ATMs, phone calls, bank transfers, even the files we sync with Dropbox – it's all encrypted. It's got to be. The trend towards encrypted messaging apps is just the latest part of the jigsaw.
"Previously accessible only to those in the upper realms of technology and security, encryption has gone mainstream," says Jacob Ginsberg, Senior Director at email encryption company Echoworx. "We're seeing everything from apps and platforms being purpose-built specifically for encryption, to mainstream sites and messaging platforms choosing to now embrace it."
There's nothing weird about encryption. "It's about offering the same levels of privacy you get from closing a door or lowering your voice, which aren't seen as secretive actions," says Alan Duric, Co-Founder and CTO at secure messaging app Wire (opens in new tab), who thinks that privacy should be a part of everyone's personal digital life.
Who needs encrypted IM?
We all now know we're being watched, tracked, our preferences logged, and content targeted at us. Now we can stop it.
"There is a growing awareness of the importance of online privacy, whether it's defending against companies who mine their users' data and sell it on to third-parties, or thwarting malicious hackers who target end users and/or companies' servers," says Duric. "Now that people understand how much of their communications can be scanned or intercepted, they're choosing forms of communication that prevent this and as a result, encrypted services are on the rise."
How are governments responding to encrypted apps?
Not well. Not well at all. "Governments are fighting hard to be able to continue to access the data of anyone whenever they want," says Ginsberg, citing the Snooper's Charter in the UK and the FBI in the US suing Apple for access to encrypted information on an iPhone. In fact, grown-up discussions about the value of encryption and privacy seem to be banned in the media, despite the fact that government departments are constantly making accidental data leaks.
"Governments globally are constantly pushing ridiculous knee-jerk, slippery slope arguments about how every new piece of legislation that further erodes our privacy is 'essential' to keep us safe from terrorism, but without any proof or real consultation," says Fred Ghahramani, Co-Founder and CEO of Just10, who thinks that many governments exploit tragedies to push their own underlying agenda of eroding individual privacy and security.
Let's ban text messages!
For example, after the Bataclan Paris attacks in November 2015, legislators in France tried to ban encryption, suggesting it was hampering efforts to catch the terrorists… which were later found to have used SMS to communicate. The Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015 had already heralded the French 'Big Brother Surveillance Law', a bulk data collection system like the NSA's Prism.
"Not only was encryption unfairly demonised, but the bulk data collection and mass surveillance program – that promised to keep everyone safe – didn't work," says Ghahramani. "Most of the time it's because legislators don't fully understand the full benefits of encryption, and how many parts of their lives are affected by it."