Steven Martinez central.gdgt.com Email has been the lifeblood of the internet for decades. It's where private interactions, business transactions, personal correspondence, and fiscal information are transferred and stored. And because its communication is person to person and not publicly displayed, we may have assumed it was private. But with Ladar Levinson, the founder of secure email service Lavabit, shutting down his company amid the NSA's ever more apparent surveillance of the Internet, is privacy even possible anymore? The illusion of safety It may depend on your expectations. Email in general is not very secure. Though interactions may be between two private parties, the email itself passes through several spots where others can read the things you've read. Unless you or your email host specifically encrypts the information, there isn't much to keep it away from prying eyes. Even if you have chosen to encrypt your own emails, or trust your email host to do that for you, there are still uncertainties. The Internet exploded with ire recently when it was suggested that Google claimed we had "no expectation of Gmail privacy." However, what they were actually saying was that anybody who emails a Gmail user had no expectation of privacy just because they use a different service and didn't agree to Google's terms of service. Since one of the benefits of email is that every email is compatible with every host (whether it be Google or Yahoo or Microsoft or Facebook) and all of those host companies have different standards of security, unless you carefully researched each one you would really have no idea how private an email you sent, or one being sent to you, is. The business of email Some privacy concerns aren't cloaked in murky terms of service and are hidden in plain sight. Ever see an ad related to something you sent an email about? That's because Google openly scans our emails to advertise to us more directly. And the Google Now app on Android and iOS uses this information to do things like automatically help you track packages you ordered. There's an often-used axiom regarding free services that is usually applied to social networks but can be used for almost any Internet service -- when the product is free, you become the product. Google's mantra may be "Don't be evil," but that doesn't mean they don't seek to gain something from you. Those are just the things we know about. Lavabit was an email service designed with the utmost security in mind. It had strong encryptions and security measures to really give its clientele a reasonable expectation of privacy. In a way, that goal turned out to be too costly to maintain in the name of national security. To serve and protect If you are worried about criminals stealing important information, or third parties reading emails who shouldn't, there certainly are measures that can be taken to give you an edge. But ultimately, the value of the information tied to your email account is too great to expect that people won't always be thinking of new ways to subvert it. Even if the content of your email is secure, if the title of the email, time it was sent, or even who you sent it to can be discovered, that might be enough to jeopardize privacy. With the knowledge that the NSA is practically being CC'd on every email you send, the smartest course of action might be to find other means to conduct your important business and rely less on the perceived security of email. You may have nothing to hide, but that doesn't mean it should be anybody else's business.
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