Our last post was about the role trust plays in privacy online. Reducing the number of parties involved in our internet activities is an important, foundational way we can boost our privacy. Another way, which we’re discussing today, is to introduce encryption.
Welcome to The Internet
The internet is a complicated system, but at its essence, it’s billions of computers which are connected to each other. These computers might be desktops or laptops or smartphones or a building filled with servers or a myriad of other devices, and the connections between them might be copper wire or glass fiber or radio waves, but the combination of devices and connections makes the internet what it is.
This poses a problem for privacy.
For information to get from one device to another, it needs to travel through various other devices and connections first. How can that information be kept private in transit? When you send your friend a private message, that information likely travels hundreds or thousands of miles through many different paths and devices before it reaches your friend’s device.
Can the people who control those devices and connections see your message?
In many circumstances, they can.
If your information is sent just as it is without modification, that’s called plaintext or unencrypted, and anyone along the path who can see the information can understand it just as well as the intended recipient. This is how all information was sent and received on the internet originally, and in fact, unencrypted information is still a huge amount of internet traffic — only in 2017 did unencrypted web traffic stop being the majority.
As you would expect, not everyone was keen on their information being visible to anyone who was routing the message to its final destination. This problem was solved by changing the information so that only the intended recipient would be able to make sense of it and it would look like gibberish to everyone else. In other words, by using encryption.
Welcome to The Encrypted Internet
When everything is working properly, encryption means that the person sending the message changes it in a way that only the person receiving the message knows how to make the message readable again. Anyone along the routing path can still see that there is information flowing, but it isn’t understandable.
For example, a plaintext message might look like this:
Let’s meet at 7pm
But the encrypted message would look like this to everyone else:
The ability to use encryption is based on cryptography, a field of study which specializes in applying mathematics to secure communications.
There are many different types of encryption, but for the purposes of this post, there’s only one I’ll highlight, called end-to-end encryption.
If the sender encrypts the message on their own device, and the recipient decrypts the message on their own device, then this is end-to-end encryption. This is ideal because it means that there was never any plaintext information being sent to anyone, all information sent was encrypted.
However, it’s fairly common for encryption to not be applied end-to-end. Often the sender will rely on a service to encrypt their message for them before transit, and then the service will decrypt the message on the other end before the recipient receives it. This encryption is still better than having the message be plaintext across the entire path of the message, but it’s not as secure as end-to-end encryption because you now need to trust whoever is doing the encryption and decryption for you.
Encryption — and especially end-to-end encryption — are essential to privacy on the internet today. Tools like Haven use end-to-end encryption to ensure that chat messages and details around orders are only visible to the right people, and no one else.
Enjoy a place where you can shop, chat and send cryptocurrencies privately right from one mobile app with Haven. Learn right when it launches by joining the email list below.