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The Number 1 Reason Why You Do Not Encrypt Email


Two new Pew Research Center studies are very enlightening around the American public’s perception of privacy, security, and surveillance. While both reports are worth a read, there are two contradictory statements that really stand out:

The surveys find that Americans feel privacy is important in their daily lives in a number of essential ways. Yet, few have adopted advanced privacy-enhancing measures.

Why is that? How could we be fully aware (thank you Edward Snowden!) and afraid of government and corporate surveillance, and yet take so few steps to protect ourselves? At a recent Technology Salon on Design, a good friend of mine made a great point that I believe answers this question:

Cyber security lacks user-centered design.

One of the best and most popular ways to encrypt email is PGP or Pretty Good Privacy. However, all the different flavors of PGP, from OpenPGP to PGP to GPG all have a central failing: they are hard to use.

Check out the self-titled “best PGP tutorial for the Mac ever” and you’ll quickly click away in horror at how hard it actually is to send encrypted email. This allows lazy journalists who probably never encrypt anything to write that, “Almost half of Americans have no interest in email encryption,” when the Pew study found that people really did care, but we are put off by 27 step processes.

Why should you care about what Americans think of email privacy? We work in developing countries, right?

Design matters in everything we do.

Well, here are tech-savvy people who are fully aware of government and corporate tracking. Who want to be protected from unreasonable searches, and yet who do not enact basic encryption protocols because they are not easy or simple to use.

This should be a stark lesson as we try to get tech-illiterate constituents to change their behavior and include ICT in what was previously an analog experience. Our technology tools, in fact, our whole intervention better be well designed if we hope to have any user acceptance, much less adoption of our solutions.

So do all of us a favor. Check out the Tech Salon posts on Design for Development, read the Design Salon Resource Document‘s 7 pages of links, and most of all, the Design with the User Digital Development Principle.

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