In a public event hosted by the Reddit.com, infamous NSA whisteblower Edward Snowden answered questions posted by Reddit users on a variety of topics. Of particular note was his response to a question about whether encrypting emails would be an effective way to keep the NSA (or anyone else, for that matter) out of your business. Snowden’s response was both heartening and depressing at the same time:
Encryption works. Properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on. Unfortunately, endpoint security is so terrifically weak that NSA can frequently find ways around it.
What this means for you:
Imagine you want to send a package that contains some very valuable items to a friend on the other side of the world. You carefully wrap the items and then lock them in a briefcase, which is in turn handcuffed to an armored guard, who is then transported via armored truck to your friend’s house. He makes sure that the package is put into your friend’s hands and verifies that your friend is indeed who he says he is, and he even calls you to let you know that the package has been delivered safely. This is analogous to using email encryption to send an email to a friend.
Unfortunately, your friend’s house has a broken lock on the front door, and he carelessly leaves the valuable items in plain view of a window that is also unlocked. That’s analogous to the weak endpoint security Snowden at the end of his response.
In other words, it doesn’t matter how much security you engage on your end if your recipients don’t engage in the same level of security. To use another real-world analogy: cyber attacks are like water – they will flow into every nook and cranny, looking for a way in. It doesn’t matter if 99% of the surface it is covering is impenetrable. That last 1% provides the hairline crack needed to seep in and destroy everything from the inside.
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