Thanks to the fallout from the revelations about the U.S. government's surveillance tactics, people are starting to take interest in using encryption tools for keeping email, files, and instant messaging private. Just recently, Yahoo said it would build encryption into Yahoo Mail and Google is doing something similar with Gmail.
The problem is that encryption is usually a task that only power users can handle. Email encryption, for example, has typically required a desktop email client. But who doesn't use webmail these days? That's a problem that Google and Yahoo aim to change.
But they aren't the only ones. Lately, some easy-to-use encryption tools have popped up that are very well designed and don't require you to dramatically change your usage habits.
Here's a look at three of them.
All the tools below are Chrome extensions and apps, but are also available for other platforms and browsers as noted.
Also, keep in mind we're not suggesting that these tools can be used under dangerous situations such as political oppression or revolution. Scenarios like that are way beyond the scope of this article. For the average North American hoping to keep their data private from passive government snoops, private companies, co-workers, and others, these tools should work just fine.
Cryptocat is probably the encryption tool that is easiest to use right now. This is an instant messaging program created by Montreal-based programmer Nadim Kobeissi.
You can use Cryptocat to chat with just one person or a group of people. To get started, install Cryptocat from the Chrome Web Store and then open it either from the all apps tab in Chrome or the taskbar launcher in Windows—if it's installed.
A new tab will open in Chrome. Fill out the form with a conversation name and nickname of your choosing and press connect. You now have your own encrypted chat room. To get others to join your chat just give them the conversation name and have them follow the same steps to join. Cryptocat also works with Facebook chat.
While Cryptocat is a popular piece of software for encrypted messaging, no piece of software is bullet proof. In July 2013, a programming issue potentially exposed Cryptocat conversations to decryption. The issue was promptly resolved, but it shows that you still have to be cautious when using programs like these.
Kobeissi warns that you should never trust your life with a piece of software, and Cryptocat can't mask your Internet protocol (IP) address, which could be used to reveal your location. It also can't save you if malicious software is already on your PC recording every keystroke you make.
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