Throughout history, whether it’s secret communiques, personal diaries, or banned religious texts, people have gone to great lengths to keep written texts private and secure from prying eyes. They used hidden inks, coded language, and secret couriers to try to ensure privacy.
In today’s world, protecting private information has become even more pressing. The average person creates almost two megabytes of data per second, and whether that’s medical and financial records, or simply private text messages, people need to be able to trust their data is safe and secure. And yet, when polled, nearly 74% of people say that they feel like they have no control over their private data.
So how are we protecting data today, and how did we get here?
“Ever since writing began, there are people who’ve had secret messages and they’ve needed encryption to protect those secrets,” says Dr. Simon Singh, who wrote The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy, from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography. “And one of the simplest ways to protect a secret message is to hide its very existence.”
That’s a technique known as steganography, and one of the earliest recorded instances comes from Herodotus, an ancient Greek Historian. He tells the story of a Greek leader named Histaeus who wanted to organize a revolt of the Greek city-states. But in order to coordinate his revolution, he needed to communicate with other leaders. Fearful that his messages would fall into the wrong hands, he shaved the heads of his messengers, tattooed important information onto their scalps, then waited for their hair to grow back. When a messenger arrived at their destination, his head was shaved again, and the message was read.
But tattooed heads, hidden inks and other forms of steganography can only do so much, and in the modern world, we need something more to keep our data safe.
“So in the past, when we had things of value, like gold and jewelry, we would put them into a safe, shut the door, turn the key, and our valuables would be protected,” says Dr. Singh. “Today, we live in the Information Age and our information is precious. And the way we protect information is not with a lock and a key, but with encryption.”
The popular messenger app WhatsApp uses a form of encryption called End to End Encryption. Before a personal message ever leaves your device, it’s secured with a cryptographic lock, and only the recipient has the keys. Not even WhatsApp has the ability to see the content of messages or listen to calls that are end-to-end encrypted. That’s because the encryption and decryption of messages sent and received on WhatsApp occurs entirely on your device. And for an added layer of security, the keys change with every single message that’s sent.
The world of communication technology is constantly evolving, but so do the threats to data privacy. Understanding how companies like WhatsApp protect your data is vitally important. Because if your data isn’t protected with end-to-end encryption, you should ask yourself, are you really messaging in private?