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Surveillance Fears Drive Business Use of Secure Collaboration Tools

Fear of Government Surveillance Overreach is Driving the Adoption of Secure Collaboration Platforms

The COVID-19 pandemic and associated upsurge in remote working has expanded the threat landscape for all enterprises. The security of communications and collaboration tools is a hot topic, with online conferencing tools being among the relatively few beneficiaries of the pandemic.

Wickr is one such product, with a tag line of leaving no trace. While it can legally be instructed to hand over user data, it has none to hand over. In an attempt to understand what drives user behavior, the company has analyzed use of its Pro/business collaboration platform during the COVID-19 epoch. "We saw a big spike," said the firm in its analysis. "It makes sense, since demand for remote work solutions has certainly increased over the past few months. We also noticed that some countries had much larger spikes than others and wondered if something else could be driving the increases."

If it were just the increased operation of working from home driving the increased use of the Wickr platform, it could be expected to be fairly uniform -- which isn't the case. There is, however, a secondary 'privacy' issue over the same period -- the development and use of coronavirus contact tracing apps.

Looking more closely at its figures, Wickr detected a correlation between the more draconian use of contact apps and the uptake of its platform. Turkey, for example, where coronavirus patients are required to use a tracing app capable of alerting enforcement authorities if they leave their home or other quarantined area, has seen a 4,486% growth in the use of the Wickr platform from February 2020 to April 2020. Turkey has in the past also detained thousands of citizens for using an encrypted app, and requires service providers to add intercept functionalities.

Israel, where security agencies can track the phone data of people with suspected coronavirus, has seen a 2,336% increase. Hungary, which has proposed government mandated encryption backdoors and has recently granted its prime minister an indefinite power to rule by decree, has seen a 1,502% increase,

In contrast, privacy-conscious Germany, which is adopting the least intrusive form of contact tracing, has seen a mere 25% increase. It seems clear from these figures that something more than, or in addition to, remote working is driving the rapid adoption of secure collaboration tools. The implication is that concern over privacy is a major factor -- but this isn't proven by these figures alone.

Wickr checked back over its historical figures, and found another correlation to government activity. In December 2018, the Australian government passed the Telecommunications Access and Assistance Act, which allows the Australian government to compel cooperation and surveillance assistance from companies. Local use of Wickr increased by 100% at this time. 

In March 2019, a local government bill in Hong Kong enabled extraditions to mainland China for the first time. Local use of the Wickr Pro/business platform increased by 200%. In Russia, in May 2019 when the sovereign internet law was signed, tightening Moscow's grip on internet communications, use of Wickr again increased by 200%.

It seems likely from these figures that the primary motivation for adopting secure collaboration platforms is concern over government interference in privacy. The figures are dramatically higher today because of the privacy implications of the COVID-19 contact tracing apps. It would seem that many people are concerned that governments will not easily abandon their increased surveillance powers following the end of the pandemic. Comparisons between 9/11 and the Patriot Act, and COVID-19 and contact tracing and surveillance are common.

What remains somewhat surprising, however, is that the increased adoption analyzed by Wickr is not in its consumer-oriented chat program, but in its business-oriented communication and collaboration tool. It is easier to understand individuals being concerned about their personal privacy than in businesses being concerned about government surveillance -- yet that is what these figures suggest.

There are two possible reasons for this. Even though business is already subject to considerable government surveillance in many different forms, nevertheless business is led by individuals with individuals' attitudes towards privacy. The second reason may be more pragmatic. Business is global and there are many different data protection and privacy laws with different degrees of severity in place around the world. If any one government acquires excessive surveillance rights, this could be seen as a threat to international trade.

However, whatever the causes, the one thing that cannot be denied is a sudden and dramatic uptake in the use secure collaboration tools that appears to correlate with fears of increasing government surveillance capabilities. It would seem that the backlash against government surveillance that started with Edward Snowden's revelations about the Five Eyes' surveillance practices has not waned over the years.

Related: COVID-19 Contact Tracing Apps: Effective Virus Risk Management Tools or Privacy Nightmare?

Related: Tech-Assisted COVID-19 Tracking Is Having Some Issues 

Related: Apple and Google Team Up on Virus 'Contact Tracing' by Smartphone 

Related: Court Curbs German Spies' Foreign Internet Surveillance

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Kevin Townsend is a Senior Contributor at SecurityWeek. He has been writing about high tech issues since before the birth of Microsoft. For the last 15 years he has specialized in information security; and has had many thousands of articles published in dozens of different magazines – from The Times and the Financial Times to current and long-gone computer magazines.