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Building Trust 5 January 2015

I Just Want to Communicate Confidentially: Is That too Much to Ask?

Christine Runnegar
By Christine RunnegarSenior Director, Internet Trust

The need for confidential communication and finding it difficult to achieve is a sentiment that spans national borders and cultures. That is the message from the Internet Society’s survey regarding confidential online communication.

Before diving into the results, we need to insert a disclaimer: we recorded 1347 responses, indicating global interest in this issue. However, we consider the sample to be too small to be representative and assume a self-selection bias towards respondents with an interest in confidentiality.

The results confirmed our hypothesis that the ability to communicate confidentially online is important to caring Internet users irrespective of where they reside.

They also show that uncertainty as to whether a communication would be confidential causes some users to choose not to communicate online in various circumstances.

Trust is a key component for users:

  • trust in their devices, the applications they use, and the networks that their data traverses;
  • trust that they are communicating with the intended “communicator”;
  • trust that their communications are not being monitored;
  • trust that their communications will not be exposed by the recipient without their permission.

The responses also illustrated that encrypted communication is not easy. There are a number of fundamental obstacles, including:

  • insufficient information/guidance on how to use the tools;
  • usability issues;
  • dependency on other users using the same tools;
  • incompatibility between tools/interoperability hurdles/poor tools.

And … the potential harm from unwanted exposure of confidential online communications can be wide-ranging – discomfort, embarrassment, financial harm, lost opportunity, loss of reputation, feeling that privacy has been violated, feeling of being observed, self-censoring, feeling powerless, feeling of insecurity, erosion of authority, reduced/loss of trust, etc.

The results also highlight that there is a need for:

  • greater transparency as to what happens to Internet users’ communications data (including any surveillance that may or may not occur);
  • better tools and guidance;
  • neutral, trusted and respected sources of information;
  • legal parameters.

We invite you to read the full report Communicating Online Confidentially and to share with us your thoughts on how to improve Internet users’ ability to communicate confidentially online.

Finally, we would like to thank everyone who responded to our request for information about their needs and expectations when they communicate online. We received some very thoughtful responses that really help highlight some of the key challenges, gaps and opportunities. ​

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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