Why You Should Encrypt Everything and the Reason You Probably Don't

Why does much of the world stubbornly resist data and email encryption? Why don’t we enable it on all our devices all the time?

Most of the more than 2.5 billion people who use email have more than one account, and 95 percent of the email they send is unencrypted. In real numbers, that’s just over 194 billion emails sent every day in the clear. With the Edward Snowden leaks, the increased attention to online privacy, and the steady increase in data breaches around the world, it would seem imperative — in fact, negligent otherwise — to encrypt the emails we send, the data we store on our phones, and information we send up to the cloud. But, we don’t. And even now, when we’re advised that mainstream email providers like Google and Yahoo offer end-to-end encryption, we refuse to enable the technology. Why does much of the world stubbornly resist data and email encryption? Why don’t we enable it on all our devices all the time?

For most, it’s about convenience. It’s too cumbersome to set it up, and the potential for irrevocable data loss is too high if you forget your password. Unlike technologies that allow for the automatic back up and recovery of your data, if you forget your password to an encrypted device, you may lose all your data. There is no safety net. 

The technology to encrypt consumer email has been around since 1991. Phil Zimmerman released Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) that year and provided to the average citizen encryption technology that heretofore had been the domain of large corporations and governments. Reportedly, when it was released, the NSA couldn’t break it. And while not simple to use, it afforded many with the ability to feel secure in sending and receiving email traffic.

"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."

But, in a famous study by scholars at UC Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon University, researchers found that most people didn’t use email encryption technology like PGP because it was too complex to use. The user interface was clunky. “User errors cause or contribute to most computer security failures, yet user interfaces for security still tend to be clumsy, confusing, or near-nonexistent,” the authors argue. “User interface design for effective security remains an open problem.”

In fact, The Washington Post reported back in 2013 that Snowden had to personally explain how to set up PGP to Glenn Greenwald, the reporter at The Guardian he contacted:

"When Edward Snowden, the man who leaked the details of the PRISM program, first contacted Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian in February, he asked the journalist to set up PGP on his computer so the two could communicate securely. He even sent Greenwald a video with step-by-step directions for setting up the software. But Greenwald, who didn't yet know the significance of Snowden's leaks, dragged his feet. He did not set up the software until late March, after filmmaker Laura Poitras, who was also in contact with Snowden, met with Greenwald and alerted him to the significance of his disclosures."

“Encryption works best if it's ubiquitous and automatic,” computer security guru Bruce Schneier writes. “The two forms of encryption you use most often — HTTPS URLs on your browser, and the handset-to-tower link for your cellphone calls — work so well because you don't even know they're there.”

"Encryption is the most important privacy-preserving technology we have, and one that is uniquely suited to protect against bulk surveillance — the kind done by governments looking to control their populations and criminals looking for vulnerable victims."

To that end, privacy nonprofit Open Whisper Systems announced last week announced the release of Signal for Android. And while the app doesn’t encrypt and protect email, it does allow for the sending and receiving of encrypted messages and voice calls. And it does it in an idiot-proof manner. When the app was first released on iTunes last year, Open Whisper Systems’ founder Moxie Marlinspike told Wired magazine, “In many ways the crypto is the easy part. The hard part is developing a product that people are actually going to use and want to use. That’s where most of our effort goes.” Lauded by privacy advocates globally — including Snowden — Signal has been downloaded to over a million Android phones.

Whether or not apps make encryption simpler and easy to use, it’s vital that you use technologies that encrypt and protect your information. Personal data security and privacy is your problem. No one is going to solve it for you; neither is an app developer, your government, your child, nor your tech-geek neighbor. Protecting your data is the responsibility of one person: you.

As Schneier reminds us:

"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 should be enabled for everything by default, not a feature you turn on only if you're doing something you consider worth protecting. ... Encryption is the most important privacy-preserving technology we have, and one that is uniquely suited to protect against bulk surveillance — the kind done by governments looking to control their populations and criminals looking for vulnerable victims. By forcing both to target their attacks against individuals, we protect society."
Jason is Chief, Innovation for Thomson Reuters Special Services where he facilitates, oversees, and executes long-term solutions to emerging technology challenges. He works closely with governments, the private-sector, and non-governmental organizations to identify opportunities that will shape the future. The views expressed are his alone and do not necessarily represent the views of Thomson Reuters or Thomson Reuters Special Services.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.