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It has been said that we are living in the golden age of surveillance. There are cameras on every lamp post, RFID readers track the movement of our vehicles, our mobile devices constantly send our locations to app makers and advertisers, and the Internet has been compromised at a deep level by intelligence services who use it as a global eavesdropping platform.
Never before have law enforcement and intelligence agencies had such a vast array of surveillance tools at their disposal. Just a couple decades ago, police officers and spies had to actually spend time developing information sources, following suspects, and doing the general grunt work that came with those jobs. Now, whatever information they need on a suspect’s activities, friends, family members, and interests is just a few clicks away. The huge technological advancements we’ve enjoyed this century also have enabled the rise of commercial and government surveillance on a global scale.
But if this truly is the golden age of surveillance, it’s also the golden age of encryption. There have been enormous gains in the security and usability of encryption systems in just the last few years, advances that have made strong encryption available to the masses in a way that was virtually unthinkable even a decade ago. For most of recorded history, encryption apps have been brutal to use, even for fairly technical users. Anyone who has tried to use PGP or most of the full-disk encryption apps can attest to that.
However, the encryption landscape has shifted in a big way recently, and it’s a big win for users. The array of choices for everyday users who are looking for secure email, messaging, or voice apps is huge. The quality and usability of these apps can vary widely, but many of them are free or close to it and as simple to use as Gmail or iMessage. The best of them, such as Signal, do the encryption and key management operations in the background and take the responsibility for all of that off users’ shoulders. These apps provide a high level of security and privacy without the burdens that came with the previous generations of encryption apps.
And the evolution is continuing. This week, Lavabit, a secure email service that had gone dark three years ago, made its return. If you’re not familiar, Lavabit is the service that Edward Snowden was using before that whole exile thing happened. After Snowden was revealed as the source of the NSA leaks, Ladar Levison, the company’s founder, found himself in a tight situation. The United States government was knocking on his door with a warrant, demanding the SSL key to Snowden’s email account. Levison fought the warrant, unsuccessfully, and eventually decided to shut down the service when he had to turn over the key.
“In August 2013, I was forced to make a difficult decision: violate the rights of the American people and my global customers or shut down. I chose Freedom. Much has changed since my decision, but unfortunately much has not in our post-Snowden world. Email continues to be the heart of our cyber-identities, but as evidenced by recent jaw-dropping headlines it remains insecure, unreliable, and easily readable by an attacker,” Levison said in announcing the new service.
Life may be easier than ever for those who are looking to eavesdrop on or intercept users’ communications. They have a variety of powerful tools at their disposal. But the difference now is that users have their own set of tools that are just as powerful and effective for defending their sensitive information.