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Cracking The Code: Just How Does Encrypted Email Work?

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Cracking The Code: Just How Does Encrypted Email Work?

Cracking The Code: Just How Does Encrypted Email Work?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Once again, it's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea.

And perhaps you are listening to the show on a computer or on some kind of a mobile gadget while you check your email. Well, then you probably know that everything we do online leaves a digital trail. That includes all of our communications, sending an email, a message on Facebook or online chatting.

A few tech companies have been working to obscure that trail a little bit with the process known as encryption. But that got us wondering, what exactly is encrypted email?

MICAH LEE: That is a pretty big question.

GONYEA: That's Micah Lee, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And he helped walk us through how encryption works. He says most of us use some kind of online encryption every day without even knowing it. Sometimes you might notice a small padlock symbol on your Internet browser.

LEE: You know, let's say you're paying a bill at a coffee shop or on some other open wireless network - it means that other people on that same network won't be able to spy on you.

GONYEA: That kind of encryption happens all the time and pretty much automatically. But what if you want to keep your information private, not just from outsiders, but from the services you use?

LEE: Let's say you are sending a private message to somebody. Maybe you don't want Facebook, for example, to know the contents of this private message.

GONYEA: In that case, you need to encrypt those messages yourself. To do so, you'll need software that will jumble the text, making it look like gibberish.

LEE: The actual encrypted data looks like random data.


GONYEA: So the person who receives your message needs to be able to unjumble it back into words. They need to decrypt it.

LEE: You actually have to send encrypted emails with other people who are also using encrypted email.

GONYEA: Then you're both on the same page.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hello. My name is Don.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hello, Don. How are you?

GONYEA: I'm fine, thanks. So Micah Lee says those communications are very difficult to decode for an outsider, even for a government. But it just takes a long time and a fair amount of expertise for people to set that whole thing up.

LEE: And then also, there's a million things that could go wrong.

GONYEA: For example, someone could just hack directly into your computer and monitor every single key you hit. If all this sounds overwhelming, Micah Lee says you're not alone. Most people don't take any additional steps to keep their info private.

LEE: The problem, I think, is that it's just very hard. So it's just the very dedicated nerds that are using it right now.

GONYEA: But he says he hopes some of those dedicated nerds will one day make all of that encryption automatic for all of us. Until then, send email like the whole world is watching.


GONYEA: This is NPR News.

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