Making Communications Safe & Accessible

Encryption software is notoriously difficult to use. Experts agree that there is no such thing as usable cryptography, despite the term “usable crypto” being more and more widely used in the industry. Arguably, the notions of usability and cryptography belong to two separate disciplines. One is about creating something that people can interact with, while the other is about technical infrastructure that – important as it may be – should not be visible to the end user. Without the proper balance, consumers will not be able to benefit from cryptography.

A multi-disciplinary issue

The reality is that users don’t want cryptography in and of itself. What users really want is to communicate safely with whom they please and in the manner of their own choosing. Cryptographers and the security and privacy community are unable to fix this problem alone. Real-world cryptography exists within a complex environment, involving product design and creating experiences that are appropriate for the user, without requiring additional inputs from the user. This is a multi-disciplinary issue that requires not only cryptographers, but user-experience designers and developers as well.

One way to address the issue is to adopt the security audit, which is already a common tool in security circles. In the security audit, an application’s vulnerability to attacks is investigated through a variety of technical processes. Recently, campaigners have raised money to fund security audits of critical tools, for instance the hard-drive encryption software TrueCrypt.

Perhaps the same model might be used to fund user-experience audits of secure communication software, and subject the tools to the kind of user testing that assesses high-profile apps of leading consumer companies.

EFF’s Campaign for Secure & Usable Crypto

Late in 2014, EFF began the “Campaign for Secure & Usable Crypto,” with the objective of encouraging the creation and use of tools and protocols that not only offer genuinely secure messaging, but are also usable in practice by those who are most vulnerable to dangerous surveillance, those who may not necessarily be well-versed in sophisticated computer protocols.

The first phase of the EFF campaign involves the Secure Messaging Scorecard. The objective of this scorecard is to identify messaging systems that are on the right track, from a security perspective. Future phases of the campaign will delve deeper into the usability and security properties of tools that are working the best, according to the Scorecard. One important aspect of the Scorecard and the campaign is and will be code auditing.

In order to have any confidence in software with security implications, it is important to know that is has been reviewed for structural design problems, and is being continuously audited for bugs and vulnerabilities in the code. The goal of such audits is to decrease (not eliminate) risks of problems and vulnerabilities.

The challenge is that there is a wide variation in both quality and efficacy of audits and auditing processes can be difficult to measure. Audits can be partial or thorough and those conducting them have various levels of skill and expertise. The EFF’s Scorecard had to deal with significant challenges around these variations. While it is important for users to select well-audited software, it isn’t always obvious how to define and objective and practical metric for the quality of audits.


Although it’s a popular buzzphrase, “usable cryptography” includes two ideas that might belong to completely separate camps. This article looks at what it would take to make crypto tools useful to the end user.

CIPP Exam Preparation                                      

In preparation for the Certified Information Privacy Professional/Information Technology (CIPP/IT) exam, a privacy professional should be comfortable with topics related to this post, including:

  • Data encryption – cryptography (III.D.e.i.)

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>