Note: This article was published as "Net Tips 1" in CWU Briefing, weekly newsletter of the Communication Workers Union (UK).
Did you know that sending email is like sending a postcard? Just as a postcard can be read by everyone who handles it on its way to its destination, so email is open to reading by all the computers that pass it along through the internet to its destination.
The insecurity of email is a trade union issue because we are increasingly using email for sensitive workplace issues. For example, an employee who emails her trade union rep to discuss sexual harassment is doing the equivalent of standing up on a desk and shouting it out.
When trade unionists discuss collective bargaining issues by email, and particularly when they do this on the employer's own network, they are practically inviting the employer to join in the conversation.
It has been said of email, and this is true, that you should never write anything in an email message that you wouldn't want to appear as a headline on the front cover of tomorrow morning's newspaper.
Email in its present form is so insecure, so wide-open to interception and monitoring, that it would be irresponsible of trade unionists to use it for anything that is even slightly sensitive.
Unless they use PGP.
PGP stands for "Pretty Good Privacy" and it is a whole lot more than that. PGP is a free program which you can download from the Internet and which gives you an extraordinary level of security with your email. In fact, it's so powerful that the US government classified it as an "armament" and its export, even to countries like Britain, was considered a crime. (As of 13 December 1999, it is now, finally, legal to export PGP software.)
How secure is it? As the Deputy Director of the US National Security Agency said, "If all the personal computers in the world - 260 million - were put to work on a single PGP-encrypted message, it would still take an estimated 12 million times the age of the universe, on average, to break a single message." No wonder the NSA didn't want this program distributed freely.
You can download the software from http://www.pgpi.com/ . Setup and installation are actually quite easy. The manual distributed with PGP is readable and clear. Nevertheless, it may be daunting at first.
For that reason, we're considering running a week long course online to teach trade unionists how to set up and use PGP. If you'd be interested in participating in such an online course, send me an email: email@example.com (If you already have PGP and know how to use it, you can encrypt your email so only I can read it by taking a copy of my "public key" which is available for all to download at http://www.labourstart.org/pgp.shtml).