Mark Zuckerberg announced that email was dead in 2011. Co-incidentally, that was around the same time that Facebook launched Messenger. But despite the pressure from messaging apps, and IRC-like chat tools like Slack, we’re still addicted to email — and reaching Inbox Zero is still a distant dream.
Tussles between the Trump and Clinton campaigns put email in the headlines. And when her campaign’s emails were hacked, it shocked the world. But as long as we are blasé about our use of email, the privacy risk will continue to rise for all of us — not just those in the media spotlight.
Risks of Email Exposed
Over 90% of Americans now have an email address, according to eMarketer. And email retains a certain allure, particularly in business, where conversations can take place without both parties having to be present. Businesses love email because it’s cheap, too; expect mailshots to live on long after we’ve ditched email for everything else.
But email provides an illusion of privacy. That’s its most dangerous feature. It’s private enough for many people, but in an age of hacks and leaks, we can’t afford to be complacent.
John Podesta’s emails were stolen using a simple phishing attack — the kind of attack that banks and payment providers have trained us to watch out for. Yet he was caught out, and thousands of “private” emails are now available to browse through on Wikileaks.
Prior to that, Clinton was using a private email server. That’s not the scandal. At the time, there was no law against it. The complete lack of foresight is a telling sign of our attitude to privacy and secure communication over the last 10 years; there was an attack on UK politicians’ email only a few months ago.
Now that the Trump vs Russia scandal has started to unfurl, email has been implicated yet again. Trump Jr sent what appears to be an incriminating message via email. Not only that, but the message was carbon-copied to several people. In this case, he has allegedly left a smoking gun by failing to secure his communications.
If any action demonstrates complacency around secure communication, it is Trump Jr’s assumption that his emails were private. As we now know, that isn’t the case at all.
Privacy Problems Will Finally Kill Email
Most of us will trust technology until we have a reason not to. When we experience a hack, or a breach of trust, we wake up to the problem.
The Clinton campaign wasn’t totally naïve when it came to communication. Towards the end of 2016, it was using Signal, arguably one of the most trustworthy messaging apps on mobile. British politicians appear to be regular WhatsApp users. Ironically, the very same app has been singled out as an enabler of terrorism by some of their colleagues.
Email has fought off competition from messaging apps so far. But for some of us, the damage may have been done. Historians of the future will comb through our archived emails with fascination; your children or grandchildren will likely use your emails to figure out what kind of a person you were. Even now, children are sending emails that they would likely regret if they came into the public domain in the future.
For email to survive as a private communication method, encryption needs to rise in popularity first. Few of us routinely encrypt email messages, largely because encryption is still seen as a challenging thing to set up. But email encryption is crucial, because even a VPN can’t help you when you send emails. Some services do encrypt messages that are sent to other users on the same platform, but once they leave those servers, all bets are off.
What Does the Future Hold?
Email is 50 years old. It has fought off competition from some of the biggest tech companies in the world — so far.
Those that argue email will live forever tend to argue that ease of use and accessibility make it immortal. Those arguments apply to any app that has gained widespread adoption. It won’t be enough to save email in the end.
We’re already seeing signs of a shift happening in business; modern, remote teams are moving to apps like Slack (and its privacy-conscious competitor, Semaphor.) Spooked journalists are using Tor hidden services to obtain files from their contacts. Sources are using PGP and burner phones.
There’s no excuse to send your passport details via email, or use email to share photos of your children on holiday. The vulnerabilities have been demonstrated more than once.
How Long Has Email Got?
In North Korea, users of the Kwangmyong country-wide intranet have to accept email monitoring by the state. With increased government surveillance becoming commonplace in the west, monitoring has already increased, you should assume that your online activities are being logged constantly, and liable to be intercepted.
As governments encroach on our right to privacy, it will push us away from services that are not secure. The increased number of alerts we have to deal with will push us towards brevity. Messenger apps are antidote to both problems.