Rhodri Marsden: Use email encryption services? The trouble is, we can't be bothered
Rhodri Marsden is the Technology Columnist for The Independent; he has also written about crumpets, Captain Beefheart, rude place names and string. He's also a musician who plays in the band Scritti Politti, and won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival by playing a piece called "Silver Trumpets" with verve and aplomb.
Wednesday 23 April 2014
When I was a boy I was given a fantastic book called The Knowhow Book of Spycraft. This hugely important volume did an excellent job of persuading young men and women of the importance of secrecy and stealth, with evocative illustrations of men in dark coats and sunglasses covertly passing notes to one another through shrubbery. For a whole summer, I found myself leaving bits of paper for friends at carefully allocated drop points, informing them of crucial nuggets of information.
The bits of the book dedicated to coding your messages, though, I wasn't that bothered about. I remember one tip involved writing a message in lemon juice and the recipient holding the piece of paper over a candle to read it. It just seemed like too much of a faff. My secrets didn't seem worth encrypting.
For years, I felt the same way about email. When I send a message to a specific email address, I figure that it'll be opened by the person who owns that email address, and even if anyone else did stumble across that message, it's unlikely that they'd be interested in the contents. I knew about methods of email encryption such as PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) and GPG (Gnu Privacy Guard), because I occasionally saw the email signatures of people who cared deeply about such things; they'd include a public key that you could use to send them encrypted messages. But rather like the lemon juice, dealing with the various keys and additional processes all seemed too much like hard work. I reckoned that the people who emphasised its importance were at best excessively geeky and at worst ridiculously paranoid.
But this thinking seems to be slowly changing, not least in my own head. The revelations over the past few months about the surveillance programs of the NSA have prompted people to toy with the idea of encryption, not necessarily because they have something to hide, but merely because they have something to type and find the idea of unauthorised interception slightly unappealing. When stories of the kind revealed by Edward Snowden have emerged in the media, some encryption services have seen spikes of interest in their products, and that's a good thing for privacy in future; as systems such as PGP or GPG rely on senders and receivers having the same encryption and decryption tools at their disposal, they are only as useful as the number of people using them.
But could encryption be made easier, perhaps to the point where we can actually be bothered to do it? This week, the website Venture Beat quoted a source at Google claiming that research is under way to "improve the usability of PGP with Gmail". This piqued my interest, for a bit. The idea of all my email being encrypted with a single click and unreadable to anyone except the intended recipients – not even Google! – held a very strong appeal.
But then I realised that the aforementioned faff, a lack of ease of use, is almost a necessary part of encryption systems. All the coding or decoding should happen on your computer before the email is sent or after it's received; as soon as you make it part of the system, with public and private keys stored for convenience in the cloud and "protected" by a password, you've made the whole point of encryption redundant. Convenience and encryption will never make easy bedfellows; that's why I still don't my write letters in lemon juice. (Don't tell GCHQ.)
Life & Style blogs
Holocaust Memorial Day: 70 years since Auschwitz liberation, these are the stories of survivors
Double chins could be 'cured' without surgery or dieting using new injection
Snapchat got rid of the Best Friends feature and 'stalkers' are upset
Hershey's angers US chocolate purists by forcing company to stop importing 'yummy' Cadbury bars
Food secrets: the good, the bad...and the faeces
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Liberal Democrat minister defends comments suggesting immigration causes pub closures
- 1 The BBC has just done more to eradicate ‘terrorism’ than all our wars since 9/11
- 2 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 3 Mystery man who gave mum heart-warming note on train 'wanted to put a smile on her face'
- 4 Michelle Obama highlights harsh restrictions faced by Saudi women after meeting King Salman without wearing a headscarf
- 5 Grumpy Roald Dahl letter warning student to 'eschew beastly adjectives' rediscovered after 35 years
iJobs Gadgets & Tech
£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunity to join a...
£35000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: BI Developer (Business In...
£Negotiable (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a Mac Operator / Artworker to ...
£Negotiable (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a Digital Content Designer / W...