Encryption, the Latest Pew Survey, and the Privacy Paradox

I just finished "The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography" by Simon Singh, and I've been absolutely enthralled by his account of cryptographers and cryptanalysts throughout history. The progression of cryptography from basic substitution ciphers to today's complex computer-based encryption methods is a story that is far more exciting that it would seem.

Singh's description of the way codes have changed the course of history is particularly compelling. Of course, the naturally obvious example is the Enigma Code during WWII, but equally compelling are the "Navajo Talkers," who used the Navajo language to conceal communications for the US marines. Basic ciphers have even been used by lovers hundreds of years ago to communicate via the newspaper.

Yet today, the idea of cryptography is foreign to most people that I know. The use of encryption to shield personal messages or activity is seen as something to be used by hackers and most of us (myself included) don't use encryption whatsoever. But is this necessarily right?

Just this past Wednesday (May 20), Pew released a new report related to Americans' perceptions of privacy. The results indicate that 88% of Americans said that "Not having someone watch you or listen to you without your permission" is important to them. While end-to-end encryption is a natural solution to this problem, we don't do it. We don't even seem to think of it as a viable solution.

This all naturally fits together with Daniel Solove's privacy paradox, which suggests that despite caring out privacy, we do little to ensure that our own privacy is protected. But the tools are out there, and they have been for hundreds of years, as Singh demonstrates.

For some reason, despite the widespread availability of these tools, and a huge number of reasons to pursue privacy, encryption is almost demonized. David Cameron, the newly reelected Prime Minister of Britain, wants to put an end to end-to-end encryption. In some cases, this demonization is fair. Complete privacy and tor browsing gave birth to the silk road and other illegal activities on the internet.

Outside of illegal activities, though, regular, law-abiding citizens care about their privacy. However, based on the Pew Survey, we have little to no expectation that our communications aren't being intercepted. It begs the question, do we really care about our own privacy, or do we just trust the government enough to not worry about it. But do we also trust each site we visit? And our ISP? And random hackers in other countries? It's hard to be sure, and encryption is a useful tool. We just don't use it.

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