Is encrypted e-mail a must in the Trump presidential era?

ProtonMail makes a strong case, but there's a difference between privacy and secrecy.
Written by Chris Kanaracus, Contributor

Image: iStock

With Donald Trump poised to take over the U.S. presidency, does it make sense for all of us to move to encrypted e-mail if we want to preserve our privacy? Encrypted e-mail provider ProtonMail says yes, indeed.

ProtonMail is based in Switzerland and boasts alumni from MIT and CERN. It claims to be the largest standalone encrypted email service in the world. The company made its case for users to make the switch in a recent blog post:

Earlier this week, Donald Trump won a stunning election victory that will put him in charge of the world's most powerful mass surveillance infrastructure.

Regardless of which side of the political spectrum you are on, Trump's control over the NSA is now an indisputable fact, and we think it is worth taking a closer look at what this means.

Due to the way the US government is structured, President Trump will have a large amount of control over the NSA. The NSA is not different from any other federal agency which the president controls. The US president will be able to dictate how the agency operates through his power to appoint the NSA Director.

As a federal agency however, the activities of NSA are governed by federal law, in particular, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. However, with Republican control over both houses of Congress, President Trump would have broad power to rewrite FISA as he sees fit or introduce a new law.

The blog included a telling detail--since Trump won the election, ProtonMail has seen a doubling in new users compared to the week prior. Meanwhile, ProtonMail's post was careful to note that its user base includes both liberals and conservatives who share a common mindset toward personal privacy and government overreach:

It is tempting to blame all this on Trump and his supporters, but that is taking the easy way out. All Trump does is put a new face on the existing privacy problem. What can you do to protect your privacy rights?

Privacy is a non-partisan issue, and we hope politicians around the world wake up to the fact that privacy is not only essential for democracy, it is also critical for securing the growing digital economy.

ProtonMail is supported by community contributions. Accounts are available free of charge but paid accounts are also available.

Analysis: The Distinction Between Privacy and Secrecy Is a Crucial One

ProtonMail's position overestimates the importance of encrypted email when it comes to public policy for privacy, says Constellation Research VP and principal analyst Steve Wilson.

"I point out that many technologists blur privacy and secrecy," he says. "Encrypted email products are secrecy tools. They certainly have an important role to play and there is a totally legitimate market for secret email. All things being equal, the more we all encrypt our email the better. However, privacy is about protecting data that is not secret. It is about controlling the flows of identifiable information."

See also: Edward Snowden: Don't fear Trump, fear the surveillance state | Will Donald Trump's first 100 days as president include a cybercrisis? | From Brexit to Trump: How organizations and data prepare for and respond to political events

ProtonMail may also be jumping the gun a bit as far as predicting what Trump will accomplish, and when. "Trump is no ordinary Republican and does not necessarily have the party in his pocket," Wilson says. "Neither do American parties vote reliably or predictably as a bloc; the GOP is a broad church, with individuals subject to their own particular agendas, and it remains to be seen how the dynamic of the new government will play out on Congress members' voting behaviors."

Meanwhile, "the relationship between public appetite for what I call real privacy--which is mostly expressed in government regulation--and the market demand for encrypted email--or 'DIY secrecy'--is complicated and I think poorly understood in the US," Wilson adds. "Compared to the whole population, only a small proportion of people are moved sufficiently to go out and adopt encrypted email. Proton's conclusions are based on small and biased samples of motivated individuals."

Moreover, encrypted email is of very little use in the absence of critical mass of others using the same system, and encrypted email interoperates very poorly, Wilson notes.

There's nothing wrong with advocating for encrypted email, "but that's just a piece of the privacy puzzle, and frankly not a critical piece," Wilson adds.

Finally, there's the question of the practicality of encryption for those who fear Trump and a more aggressive NSA. "I say it's like taking a knife to a gun fight," Wilson says. "The NSA have the best cryptographers and security analysts in the world. If you are an individual for whom the NSA really is a significant threat--say you are an activist--then get real. Installing encryption software for yourself on a regular PC, probably with your keys kept in regular memory, is not going to stop the NSA."

"If the idea is a form of resistance, where the population will rise up and use encryption en masse to confound the NSA's surveillance program, then that might work but only if a great many people really do find a way to use encrypted emails consistently and for the majority of their communications," Wilson adds.

But that's just too hard. What makes more sense are walled garden direct messaging applications such as WhatsApp and Signal (which ProtonMail's post also recommends using), Wilson says.

In any case, Trump's administration will certainly present ample opportunity for a public debate over personal privacy. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has predicted Trump will reverse policies against domestic surveillance and Trump himself has said he'd "err on the side of security" when it comes to surveillance issues. How the debate is framed in coming months and years will be crucial.

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