New organization sets out to make secure communication tools more user-friendly

Simply Secure will identify usability problems in open-source privacy tools and will work with developers to address them

Google, Dropbox and the Open Technology Fund are supporting a new organization focused on making open-source security and privacy tools more user-friendly.

The organization is called Simply Secure and plans to bring together software developers, user-experience researchers and designers to identify usability challenges in secure communication tools and to develop solutions for them.

"There are already many credible and exciting software-development efforts that aim to make privacy and security ubiquitous," said Sara Sinclair Brody, director of Simply Secure and former product manager at Google, in a blog post Thursday. "Rather than create redundant initiatives, we will focus on supporting existing open source work by providing usability and development expertise, direct ties to user communities, connections to funding sources, and other resources."

The organization's advisory board includes Google Security Engineer and Apache Software Foundation co-founder Ben Laurie; cryptographer and University of Waterloo professor Ian Goldberg, who designed the Off-the-Record Messaging (OTR) protocol; and Wendy Seltzer, the policy counsel for the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

The increasing number of large data breaches and the mass Internet surveillance revelations of the past year have generated a greater demand for secure communication tools. As a result, many developers have set out to create encrypted messaging and voice applications, encrypted email services, online anonymity tools and more.

"The tools for the job exist, but while many of these tools work technically, they don't always work in ways that users expect," said Ben Laurie and Google's Open Source Research Lead Meredith Whittaker, in a blog post. "They introduce extra steps or are simply confusing and cumbersome ('Is this a software bug, or am I doing something wrong?'). However elegant and intelligent the underlying technology (and much of it is truly miraculous), the results are in: if people can't use it easily, many of them won't."

Simply Secure will use its available funds to sponsor usability studies for existing security and privacy tools and will work with designers and developers to fix the problems that the studies identify. Public audits of user interfaces and code will be a core part of the organization's work, according to Sinclair Brody.

"We're excited for a future where people won't have to choose between ease and security, and where tools that allow people to secure their communications, content, and online activity are as easy as choosing to use them," Whittaker and Laurie said.

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