Why I Am Switching To Private Messaging — And You Should Too

Starting January 20, I will be turning off Facebook Messenger, Skype, WhatsApp and every other chat app I have been using in the past decade. I will switch to Signal for private messaging and to ProtonMail for my private emails.

Wait a minute, you may be thinking. Aren’t private messages already private?

You are talking to everyone

There is a scene in the TV series “Halt and Catch Fire”, which is about the beginnings of the information revolution that started with computers. In the first episode of the third series, called “Valley of The Heart’s Delight”, Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), a computer genius and founder of Mutiny, a fictional online game and chat company, talks to a customer she meets in a restaurant to buy his deceased son’s gaming gear. “How do you know about him at all?” he asks Cameron. “Those conversations were supposed to be private.” She can’t answer it, because she read the transcripts of his private chat. She leaves the place, slightly disconcerted.

Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe in “Halt and Catch Fire” (Source: AMC)

The series does a great job in telling a story with passion, in fiction, but inspired by actual events. This scene in particular touches the topic we were confronted with early on: the issue of privacy online.

When you are communicating online, everything you say is transmitted openly, without restrictions. Anyone who will intercept your message can read it. Any company, whose services you are using, will scan what you wrote to learn more about you.

They don’t do it because they can, they do it because they need to: Their business model is advertising, and ad people want to target specific consumer groups. So they want to know all about your life: how old you are, how many children you have, where you are living, what income you are making, what you are buying, and what you like and don’t like.

Many of us are fine with that. After all, we live in a capitalist society and if there are products we might want, we actually want to find out about them. If this means companies need to collect information about us, so what?

Information is power

Even if you are happy to deliver all about your life to commerce, there are other organisations you should be concerned about.

There is a current worldwide trend towards populism and fascism, and governments like in the U.S., UK, Turkey, Poland, France and Germany are being filled with people with their personal, ethically questionable agenda. Without involving a conspiracy theory here, you may see my point, that those people should not be trusted with vital information about our lives.

As the media has been decentralised, having ultimate access to information has been traditionally recognised as empowering people. But information today is also abused in every possible way, so that we have trouble figuring out what is actual fact and what is faked information.

“A new form of information manipulation is unfolding in front of our eyes. It is political. It is global. And it is populist in nature. The news media is being played like a fiddle, while decentralized networks of people are leveraging the ever-evolving networked tools around them to hack the attention economy.” — danah boyd, 2016

The most powerful governments are employing intelligence agencies, which are supposedly working to protect and keep their citizens safe. In reality these agencies — foremost the U.S. intelligence services such as NSA, FBI and CIA — have built total surveillance programs over the past decades. What used to be about pointed, singular surveillance jobs, is now covering the entire communication traffic around the world, including all commercial and private communication. I am not making this up: According to insiders, who worked for the U.S. government agencies NSA and CIA, every single phone call, every single email and every single text message is being collected and scanned. These agencies are able to pull out your most private information at any time, about anything at all, things you wouldn’t remember or you are not even aware of.

I have nothing to hide

Companies want to know a few things about you and government agencies want to know everything. Still, you may be thinking that this is fine, since you are not a terrorist or a criminal. “I have nothing to hide.” is an argument I hear often, especially when I’m telling people that I’m going to use a secure messaging service.

I could be dismissing this argument as naive, or continue with more details about how insecure and dangerous it is if you are talking to everyone instead of the person you wanted to talk with, and which data is collected about you. But I want to do a better job. I want to get to the bottom why we all seem resistant to being better in protecting our privacy.

What makes us ‘us’

Giving consent to a complete removal of privacy is a loss of a fundamental human right. Privacy is more than keeping conversations private. Privacy is making us who we are. Because if we are able to keep thoughts private, we are able to shape our learnings and understanding of the world around us. We are able to reflect personally, internally, and we are able to form and express our beliefs.

Private means personal, it means close to our heart, close to our core values. Whom we love, whom we feel close with, whom we know is our actual friend, understanding us, what we are thinking about life, these are inherently important values we feel are very private. We are careful with whom we trust with vital information about our lives: our medical history, medication intake, information about our preferences and beliefs.

“The right to privacy is not an individual right alone, it is also a collective right. What may not be of value to you today, may be of value to an entire population, who may be persecuted for their beliefs.” — Edward Snowden, 2016

Giving silent consent to the extinction of privacy means the lines between what is personal, what belongs to us, our identity, and what is public property, what is not personal, are removed and this will change our civilisation for good.

Those with an interest to control our thinking and our lives will not hesitate to seize this opportunity.

We all like convenience

There is a threat upon us with this consent to privacy removal we have silently given to corporations and government agencies. And yet we are ignoring this threat, we are not taking it seriously enough. Why is this the case?

If we are honest, convenience plays a big role. It is easier to continue with our habits, keeping the services we are used to, because all our friends are using them too. So far we haven’t run into any trouble, no one stopped us from saying what we wanted. In most Western democracies, the right of free speech is still taken for granted.

Because we don’t feel the immediate threat, we are not under pressure, like a blogger in China who might be disappearing tomorrow, or a journalist in Russia, dragged into a van and gone forever, we don’t feel the urgency to change our comfortable habits.

Convenience is a powerful force. And I don’t want to blame anyone who doesn’t feel the pressure yet. Maybe it would be different if you ended up on the professor watch list, or you moved to Dubai, where you find yourself in a kingdom with the normality of absolute surveillance and censorship, where you have no democratic or human rights, such as free speech, or free movement and showing affection to your partner.

Everyone is on Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, SnapChat and Instagram

If you want to take your own safety in consideration and you decide to reinstall your right for privacy, you have a few barriers to overcome: Everyone you know is using social networking platforms. These services have their drawbacks, but they also have benefits — otherwise we wouldn’t keep using them.

Social platforms started small and expanded their offering along with our behaviour (and what advertisers wanted to know). Companies which started small, like WhatsApp, were bought by other companies with an advertising interest, like Facebook. Companies with an advertising business model, like Google, were offering email and chat for free, easy to use, simple to set up.

And we went along with the ride, because free is attractive and if everyone else is using it, we were thinking it should be okay to freely hand over all of our thoughts and ideas.

The biggest selling point for a social network is the social network, the fact I can always get in touch with friends, or acquaintances, or the people these services call “friends”, even though I barely know them. Having the ability to freely communicate, friction-less and without complications, is a great benefit. We use these services to express what we are thinking about life, but also what we want from it, and we want to share the best moments in our lives with our world.

But in the end, it is not the world of Facebook, Instagram or SnapChat. It is our world. We decide where we communicate. This is the key.

It’s your world

You have the power to decide how you want to use these services. We have the power to be smart and selective in what we are giving the world, how we are exposing ourselves and what we keep in private.

If we all start protecting our privacy, no one is left behind. I believe the case is worth the effort. We have the power to protect ourselves from unethical governments and corporations with hidden agendas. We can simply install an app and finally gain our right back, the right we were given at birth, a right that makes us who we are.

The right to think and talk freely, without anyone grabbing that and turning it against us.

What are our options?

To change behaviour may seem hard at first. Luckily, on a technical level it is not hard at all. There used to be a time when this was much more difficult. But modern services have reduced the complexity of using encryption. Their services work just like we are used to from other free messaging, call and email services.

Signal uses end-to-end encrypted text messaging and phone calls. It works on the phone and desktop, so you can text or call from any device. Signal’s encryption technology is making sure what you are saying stays scrambled across the channels, so no one can intercept and decrypt your communication.

ProtonMail was built by former engineers of CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. It uses the same end-to-end encryption technology, but because it’s email, it applies it differently. You can use ProtonMail to communicate with any email address in the world, but if you are both using ProtonMail, your emails will be encrypted on both ends.

There are other secure services you can choose from: Threema in Switzerland, or HushMail in Canada, to name a few.

I am recommending Signal and ProtonMail, because they are free, easy to use and simple to set up. ProtonMail has a 500 MB limit for the free tier, but pricing for more space and a custom domain is sensible and doesn’t cost you more in a month than a single coffee at Starbucks.


Update: Be careful with which service you are using. Not every service that offers end-to-end transfer encryption actually keeps your data encrypted on both ends. ProtonMail does this, but many email services, or third party services offering encrypted transfers on top of other services (such as Dropbox or Slack), do not really keep your data safe.


Sources

  • Privacy is a Human Right, according to Article 12 of the declaration of Human Rights, by the United Nations.
  • Edward Snowden interview with Al Jazeera 2016.
  • New York Times article about the “Professor Watchlist” by a conservative group in the U.S.
  • Amnesty International report of a blogger who disappeared in China in 2011.
  • BBC report on fake news promoted on Facebook.
  • The Guardian reported about U.S. courts declaring the total surveillance programmes by the NSA illegal.
  • In “Hacking The Attention Economy”, danah boyd is demystifying the common definition of hacking and how the media, and our personal information, are being abused.
  • Romain Aubert has written a brilliant short summary about the most common available messaging services, laying out how much information they are collecting, despite they are using the Signal protocol.
  • In the Medium magazine Learn Liberty, Amul Kalia explains how America was founded applying principles of privacy and how the founding fathers used encryption to communicate among each other.
  • ProtonMail is a free email services that uses encryption to store your messages and to send them over the Internet. The strongest security is granted with both communicating parties using ProtonMail.
  • Signal is a free messaging and call service that encrypts text messages as well as phone calls. It works just like Apple Messages, or WhatsApp, but it is based on your phone number, without any personal records. You don’t even have a user name.
  • Glenn Greenwald, one of the first journalists to meet Edward Snowden, gave a TED Talk called: “Why Privacy Matters”.
  • Fábio Estevez wrote a Medium piece titled “I have nothing to hide. Why should I care about my privacy?”. More clearly than I did, Fábio lays out the reasons why you should consider claiming back your privacy.
  • Andy Yen of ProtonMail gave a TED talk about email privacy.
  • The 13 Principles on the application of Human Rights to communications surveillance.
  • A guide by The Guardian to protect your privacy online more effectively.