Encryption isn’t only for paranoid conspiracy theorists, nor is it just for tech geeks. Encryption is something every computer user can benefit from. Tech websites write about how you can encrypt your digital life, but we’ve all done a poor job of explaining why you should actually care.
We’ve covered a variety of ways to encrypt everything on your computer, encrypt files you store in the cloud, have encrypted online conversations, and do lots of other things with encryption. Now we’ll get back to basics and explain the many threats encryption can help protect you from.
Protect Your Data From Thieves
Encrypting your storage protects the data on it from thieves. If someone steals your laptop, smartphone, or tablet, encryption can prevent them from accessing the sensitive data on your hard drive. The media is full of reports from business employees who lose laptops containing sensitive customer information, including credit card numbers – if only they had used encryption, they wouldn’t have embarrassed their employers and given their customers’ information over to identity thieves.
This is a dramatic example, but it’s true even for the average person. If you store financial data, business plans, or other sensitive documents, such as scans of tax returns with your social security number and other sensitive data on them, you should ensure your computer’s hard drive – or at least the sensitive files – are stored in an encrypted form. Encryption can also help protect any other type of private data that you don’t want someone else seeing.
Store Files Securely in the Cloud
Cloud storage gives us a great way to keep our files in sync across all our devices, storing a backup copy on the cloud storage corporation’s servers so we won’t lose it. It’s also a great way to share files with other people.
However, storing sensitive data – like financial documents and other personal information – in a cloud storage account could be a mistake. Dropbox once allowed anyone to log into any account without a password for four hours, and this would have allowed anyone to access your Dropbox account and view your files. Your files could also be accessed if someone gained access to your account through other means, such as using a leaked password that you re-used on several website
Encrypting sensitive files prevents them from ever being accessed without the encryption key, even in a worst case scenario when your cloud storage provider’s security fails or someone else gains access to your account. Encrypthion also allows you to securely share sensitive data with other people – just agree on an encryption key ahead of time (you could even do this in person) and then use that key to share sensitive files over email or a cloud-storage service without others being able to access it.
There are even cloud storage services that automatically encrypt your data before uploading it, decrypting it locally when you access it. Not even the cloud storage provider’s employees could access your
Prevent Others From Viewing Your Private Browsing and Conversations
Your bank and online-shopping websites like Amazon all use encrypted connections (the HTTPS URL with a lock in your browser indicates a secure, “encrypted” connection). When you access an HTTP website, your browsing activity is viewable in plaintext form. For example, if you’re sitting in a café using public Wi-Fi and performing Google searches while not logged in, anyone on the Wi-Fi network could monitor your Google searches and any other website activity taking place over HTTP. Even if you used HTTPS to access websites, people could still see the HTTPS website you access.
To avoid having your browsing activity tracked on public Wi-Fi, you could use a VPN or Tor to “tunnel” your browsing activity through an encrypted connection.
Encryption can also be used to protect emails and instant messages against prying eyes. Email is sent over the wire in plain text form, so particularly sensitive data should be sent in encrypted emails – or not over email at all. If you’re sending an important file via email, you can encrypt the file before emailing it.
Battle Over-Reaching Government Surveillance
The government is watching you. This may seem a bit paranoid, but it’s the reality of the world we live in. Our digital lives are being increasingly picked over by our governments, often without warrants or other typical legal protections. We’re not lawyers, but here are a few anecdotes that can give you an idea of the scope of what’s going on:
- In the USA, your emails are considered “abandoned” after you open them or after 180 days if they remain unopened. This allows the US government to view your personal emails without a warrant. If you encrypted your emails, the government would require a warrant to compel you to disclose the encryption key. (Wherever you are in the world, your emails may be stored in the USA and be subject to such access, too.)
- California’s Supreme Court has ruled that police can search through your smartphone without a warrant after arresting you. If you encrypted your smartphone’s storage, the police would require a warrant to compel you to tell them the encryption key. (Source)
- According to the EFF, the US government and major telecom carriers have “engaged in a massive program of illegal dragnet surveillance of domestic communications and communications records of millions of ordinary Americans since at least 2001.” Your emails, phone calls, and other communications are available to the government without a warrant thanks to this warrantless wiretapping. (Source)
- The version of Skype distributed in China has a backdoor allowing the Chinese government to snoop on their citizens’ conversations. Microsoft has refused to answer whether the version of Skype distributed elsewhere contains similar backdoors. (Source 1, Source 2)
This is just the USA – the situation is even worse in countries like China or Iran, where repressive governments will monitor all the unencrypted communications they can get their hands on.
It’s not paranoid to realize that governments are building massive databases of our communications and personal data. Encryption can be a way to help prevent your data from being accessed without a warrant or automatically logged in a database.
Do you use encryption for your hard drive, cloud storage, smartphone, emails, or any other type of communications? Leave a comment and tell us why.