30 Years of E-Mail in Germany

Today, it has been exactly 30 years since Germany’s first e-mail was received in Karlsruhe. This anniversary was celebrated with a small event at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). A press conference was organized and students launched 72 helium balloons shaped as 0s and 1s that were arranged to read 0x4B40726C7372756865. (I didn’t actually verify this.) While personally I disapprove of such intentional and needless environmental pollution, it was a great opportunity for us to raise awareness for privacy of e-mail communication and teach people about OpenPGP.

The Young Liberals of Karlsruhe (JuLis) created a leaflet with a short text honoring the success of e-mail but also naming its weaknesses with regard to confidentiality and authenticity. This text was accompanied by the infographic from the Free Software Foundation‘s E-Mail Self-Defense Guide. Instead of handing out the leaflets as usual, we put them into well-sealed envelopes. Equipped with those, we rushed in at the event and handed out the information to interested passers-by and the media. My colleague and I even got interviewed by one of the reporters and could explain to them why using OpenPGP with e-mail is crucial to defend our civilian liberties.

While the event was visited only very sparsely, I hope that the few people we could reach will carry on the message and hopefully, the media will also report about how we can make the future of e-mail more freedom-friendly. The few passers-by reacted interested, maybe because surveillance is currently a hot topic in Germany. Hopefully, we could add our tiny bit to help shift the public discussion from anti-US slogans to solid technical solutions that will actually defend our freedom.

Closed envelope with the addressee “An alle, die bereit sind, ihre Bürgerrechte in einer digitalen Welt selbst zu verteidigen!” (en: “To those willing to defend their civilian liberties in a digital world!”), the sender “Junge LIberale Karlsruhe” and the spcial transport instruction “verschlüsselt & signiert” (en: “encrypted and signed”).

Our leaflet in a well-sealed envelope. Sending raw e-mail is much like sending a postcard. Internet service providers and intelligence agencies can read everything and there is no mechanism to ensure that the message is authentic. Use OpenPGP (eg via the GNU Privacy Guard) to give e-mail a safe envelope.

Also read our press release (German) about the event.

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