Distrust of big tech and a desire for privacy: Understanding the motivations of people who have voluntarily adopted secure email


Warda Usman, Jackie Hu, McKynlee Wilson, and Daniel Zappala, Brigham Young University


Secure email systems that use end-to-end encryption are the best method we have for ensuring user privacy and security in email communication. However, the adoption of secure email remains low, with previous studies suggesting mainly that secure email is too complex or inconvenient to use. However, the perspectives of those who have, in fact, chosen to use an encrypted email system are largely overlooked. To understand these perspectives, we conducted a semi-structured interview study that aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the mindsets underlying adoption and use of secure email services. Our participants come from a variety of countries and vary in the amount of time they have been using secure email, how often they use it, and whether they use it as their primary account. Our results uncover that a defining reason for adopting a secure email system is to avoid surveillance from big tech companies. However, regardless of the complexity and accuracy of a person's mental model, our participants rarely send and receive encrypted emails, thus not making full use of the privacy they could obtain. These findings indicate that secure email systems could potentially find greater adoption by appealing to their privacy advantages, but privacy gains will be limited until a critical mass are able to join these systems and easily send encrypted emails to each other.

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@inproceedings {289542,
author = {Warda Usman and Jackie Hu and McKynlee Wilson and Daniel Zappala},
title = {Distrust of big tech and a desire for privacy: Understanding the motivations of people who have voluntarily adopted secure email},
booktitle = {Nineteenth Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security (SOUPS 2023)},
year = {2023},
isbn = {978-1-939133-36-6},
address = {Anaheim, CA},
pages = {473--490},
url = {https://www.usenix.org/conference/soups2023/presentation/usman},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = aug

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