Why We Encrypt

June 23, 2015 – 5:13 PM

Encryption protects our data. It protects our data when it’s sitting on our computers and in data centers, and it protects it when it’s being transmitted around the Internet. It protects our conversations, whether video, voice, or text. It protects our privacy. It protects our anonymity. And sometimes, it protects our lives.

This protection is important for everyone. It’s easy to see how encryption protects journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists in authoritarian countries. But encryption protects the rest of us as well. It protects our data from criminals. It protects it from competitors, neighbors, and family members. It protects it from malicious attackers, and it protects it from accidents.

Encryption works best if it’s ubiquitous and automatic. The two forms of encryption you use most often — https URLs on your browser, and the handset-to-tower link for your cell phone calls — work so well because you don’t even know they’re there.

Encryption should be enabled for everything by default, not a feature you turn on only if you’re doing something you consider worth protecting.

This is important. If we only use encryption when we’re working with important data, then encryption signals that data’s importance. If only dissidents use encryption in a country, that country’s authorities have an easy way of identifying them. But if everyone uses it all of the time, encryption ceases to be a signal. No one can distinguish simple chatting from deeply private conversation. The government can’t tell the dissidents from the rest of the population. Every time you use encryption, you’re protecting someone who needs to use it to stay alive.


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