Encryption is on the verge of going mainstream. In this age of corporate cyberspies and government snoops, the ancient art of encoding messages is something ordinary citizens will soon come to view as an essential service.
At least that's what several tech start-ups are anticipating. On Monday, Wickr, a free app that encrypts text, voice and video messages, became available on the Android platform.
Wickr leaves no trace of your cybermusings on servers or on the device. It was introduced in June 2012 for Apple iOS. Company co-founder Nico Sell champions a return to traditional notions of privacy, and she advocates boycotting Facebook.
Sell wants her daughters, ages 4 and 12, to be able to freely express themselves online without fear of being exploited or put in harm's way. "Private correspondence is a fundamental human right that's extremely important to a free society," says Sell. Facebook and other big Internet companies are ostensibly advertising platforms designed to monetize personal information, she says.
In a similar vein, start-ups Silent Circle, Koolspan and Seecrypt offer systems that use encryption to lock down cellphone calls and e-mails. These services are aimed at corporate executives and employees who routinely work on sensitive projects.
"Various groups are spying, stealing information and organizing fraud against individuals and organizations around the world," says Jon Callas, co-founder and chief technology officer of Silent Circle. "People see the need for defense against these threats."
These new personalized encryption services enable individuals to wrest back ownership of their online behaviors. That's a potential challenge to tech giants and media companies whose business models revolve around tracking what you say, where you navigate and, with GPS, where you are physically located. This is driven primarily to better sell advertising.
Wider use of locked-down phone calls, e-mails and messaging could slow the current iterations of Internet commerce. But by the same token, individualized encryption would hinder government snooping. Data thieves and hacktivists would have a harder time disrupting Western financial and media interests, as hacking groups from Iran and Syria have been doing.
"It is not just the NSA with their hand in the cookie jar; the British, French, Germans are all doing the same thing," says Harvey Boulter, chairman of Seecrypt, a South African company. "Then you have rogue states that are hugely active."
Corporations bear a big burden to protect proprietary assets in an environment where privacy often is up for grabs. Individual consumers should start to think more deeply about all the information they divulge simply by surfing the Internet or clicking a Facebook 'Like' button.
"Every single person has private information that they most likely wish to keep private -- be it a health issue or financial data," says Boulter. "Like a neighborhood watch, at some point, people will take action themselves as opposed to relying on others to keep them safe."
Meanwhile, the soaring use of mobile devices as work tools, along with the rising use of Internet-connected devices in everything from television sets and refrigerators to baby monitors, add to the pressure cooker, says Gregg Smith, chief executive of Koolspan.
"Someone, somewhere could potentially be listening or reading your conversations," says Smith. "If you're looking for a little personal privacy in your communications with friends and loved ones, you'll need to encrypt those messages."
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