When in 1991 Phil Zimmermann created the first version of PGP encryption, he did not expect it to be such a hit. But with the passing years and the growing security and privacy issues, more and more users from the tech community embraced Pretty Good Privacy as a standard in their communication. The problem was, and still is, that Zimmermann’s PGP never really made it outside those tech circles. It seemed that just until recently, 23 years of free encryption did not cross into the realm of internet users. It simply stayed and evolved in the tech bio-sphere.
But now encryption is a hot potato. And in order to understand why it is making a comeback now, it would be useful to realize why Zimmermann created it in the first place. Zimmermann had been a long-time anti-nuclear activist, and created PGP encryption so that similarly inclined people might securely use BBSs and securely store messages and files. In a posting of June 5, 2001, entitled PGP Marks 10th Anniversary, Zimmermann describes the circumstances surrounding his release of PGP:
"It was on this day in 1991 that I sent the first release of PGP to a couple of my friends for uploading to the Internet. First, I sent it to Allan Hoeltje, who posted it to Peacenet, an ISP that specialized in grassroots political organizations, mainly in the peace movement. Peacenet was accessible to political activists all over the world”.
At the time that Zimmermann sent his code, the internet was at his infancy, just forming its initial capabilities. But since then it grew to become a huge part of our lives, to such an extent that it is hard to imagine it not being there. But the spirit of those early days is still very much alive today. The internet is used by many activists, grass root movements and other agents of freedom of expression. And the last years with its wiki-leaks as well as Edward Snowden NSA revelations, created a revival of encryption, and a growing understanding that encryption is not only for tech heads, it’s for everyone.
Living in the tipping point
“Here at ZenMate, we understand that the major flaw in Zimmermann’s PGP was not in the technology, but in the way it was introduced to users. Our vision is to provide security and privacy through encryption in a simple easy way that anyone can implement, regardless if you are a tech guru or a 92 year old granny. We understand that the real challenge of encryption is making it accessible to everyone at a click of a button. And our growing user base proves that we got it right”
-- Simon Specka, co-founder of ZenMate.
Similar things were said a few weeks ago by Jason Stockman, a co-developer of ProtonMail, a new encrypted email service which launched last month with collaboration of scientists from Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the European research lab CERN.
“Even though email encryption using special codes or keys, a system known as PGP, has been around for two decades, it was so complicated, and did not gain widespread adoption. Encryption should go mainstream by making it easy to use”.
-- Jason Stockman
A bird’s eye view of the process that made it possible for tools like ZenMate to become so popular reveals a conversion of two processes reaching a tipping point. On one hand, technology evolved to allow smart solutions like ZenMate to emerge, and on the other hand, public awareness and the growing concerns about privacy all over the globe, made it clear for users that encryption is not only reserved for techies, it’s for all of us. On the anniversary of Snowden’s revelations, 55 percent of Americans say Snowden was right to expose NSA's surveillance program and 82 percent believe they are still being watched.
Do you believe that it’s time to get encrypted too?