My wife and I were in the mall the other day looking for a pair of jeans.
We walked in to Banana Republic and a perky sales clerk immediately greeted me by name. ”Welcome back to Banana Republic, Charles. Last time you were here, you were looking for dark blue jeans. I’ll show you those.” She walked me over to the jeans section and watched as I browsed. ”Hmmm; that’s helpful I guess,” I thought.
After a moment of observed-shopping though, I began to think this was a little creepy, so I suggested we leave. Walking through the mall, my wife said, “You have a lot of dark blue, why don’t you look for some lighter blue jeans.” We talked about this for a minute, then walked in to J. Crew.
“Hi Mr. Gold. Welcome to J. Crew! We have some fantastic light blue jeans on a 30% off sale. Just follow me and I’ll show you.”
OK. Now this is getting really weird. How the hell did they know that? Time to leave. Forget the jeans.
As we walked, we discussed an upcoming Caribbean getaway. “It’s going to be awesome to be somewhere warm where we can go swimming,” I said, still feeling vaguely watched.
We stopped at Macy’s. No sooner were we in the door then a guy in a Hawaiian shirt approached us. ”You should see our bathing suits. They’re perfect for winter vacations.”
Crazy creepy. Yuck.
Of course, none of this actually happened. But it happens to me, and to all of us, every day when we’re online. And generally, it’s benign — sometimes it’s even valuable.
But frankly, I’m not crazy about the idea of anyone watching me, listening to my conversations, or reading my email. Not that I have much to hide — I’m a 45 year old married suburbanite with three kids and and a dog. Pretty standard stuff.
But, my conversations are mine. When I talk to a friend or business associate, I expect these conversations to be between us. I imagine you do too. But when we send email, we mostly give up this expectation. And for 90% of emails, this doesn’t matter. But sometimes it does. Sometimes you want to ensure your private communications stay private — not read by anyone but your intended receiver. Generally speaking, ensuring this type of privacy has been pretty difficult up until now.
For the last several months, I’ve served as a strategic advisor to Virtru, a digital privacy startup. Their service (now in private beta), lets its users send secure messages and control who can read them. They also add privacy features like the ability to revoke or expire messages. And the amazing thing is that they’ve made all this work within everyday tools like Gmail, Mac Mail, and Outlook using your existing address. They’ve also got a pretty nifty iPhone app.
Online privacy is rapidly leaving the domain of tin foil hat crowd and hitting the mainstream. Over time, I’m confident that virtually all everyday users will become more privacy-conscious. And over time, they will demand an answer to false tradeoff between privacy and convenience — they will want easy to use services to communicate securely.
I think Virtru is tapping in to a huge, unmet need — simple email privacy.
I’d love to know what you think. Post a comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.