Challenge: Online privacy in a digital world


By Alan Duric, chief technology officer at Wire

There is a growing awareness of the importance of online privacy and how this in turn is applied to mobile devices. Users have increasingly begun to question the role of the device in their pocket, the apps they use and the information that is traded in exchange for them. Actions and information relating to our lives have taken on a transactional value and is exchanged for communications tools, web services, news stories and more.

However, a new wave of privacy focussed solutions counters this, giving control back to the users so they get to decide which elements of their online lives they are willing to share. Just like in the physical world where you have the power to shut a door, close a window, speak more quietly and lock a safe; apps that use end to end encryption (E2EE) keep your digital conversations as protected as communication in the real world.

Creepy or coincidence?

We have all been in a situation where we have sent an email, or messaged a friend, and then seen an advert that relates to the conversation and thought “how did they know about that?”, or “that’s creepy”. There is a delicate balance between advertisements that users consider harmless and ones that are a step too far.

Nearly everything you do online is subject to behavioural targeting, and that includes any activity you undertake on a mobile device. Insights are gleaned from anything you click on, search for, social media activity you undertake and combined to serve you the ad most suited to your profile, as identified by an algorithm and the highest bidder.

Going back further than you’d imagine, consumers have been subjected to behavioural targeting. One example from 2012 resulted in a young woman’s pregnancy being announced to her family before she had revealed the news herself, when coupons for baby-related products were sent to her home.

Until now non-invasive advertising has been tolerated, however as the level of detail advertisers can access has increased in line with mobile device usage, many people are now taking steps to protect themselves using ad blockers.

Protecting communications

Acting as a voice for consumers who value their privacy, I firmly believe that there is one area of people’s digital lives that should never be fodder for advertising or at risk to hackers, and that is personal communications. I believe that every individual has the right to secure communications, whether that is to share holiday videos with friends and pinpoint their location, join a video chat with their kids or simply to share their family photos privately.

Over the past year there has been a rise in the number of apps that do not display ads and guarantee that they will never sell customer data to third parties, all while offering secure communications in the form of E2EE. When using an app with E2EE, a secure message is generated from your phone and sent to the receiver’s phone to be read by the intended recipient. This protection can also be applied to video and voice calls and image and document sharing, making it a multi-faceted solution.

Many messenger apps claim they offer secure communication without offering real E2EE. Watch out for apps which only secure messages while they are in transit or require users to enable a special ‘secure’ mode before the message is protected. It may currently be difficult to apply this level of privacy across the entire online world but for communications it is just a matter of time before all consumers embrace privacy and security in the form of E2EE, and demand it as a default need for online communications platforms.

Wire is a modern, private and secure communications tool offering free text, voice, video, pictures, and much more.


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