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Nonprofits that work to fulfill missions centered around environmental conservation, refugee support, health care services, or similar activities can draw unwanted attention from criminals and governments alike, including those in their home countries.
If you are concerned about who may be listening to your organization's communications, there are steps you can take to make it harder to do so. No technology can guarantee 100 percent secure communications, and any technology is susceptible to human failings, but you can change your behavior and digital tools to be safer.
In this article, we'll discuss several technologies, apps, and online services you can use to protect your privacy. But to truly stay secure, you need to change your behavior. After all, no single app can keep the wrong person or group from intercepting your communications. Before you start downloading and setting up accounts, keep the following in mind.
To start, it's helpful to determine how your data might be at risk, who might want to intercept your data, and how you can more strategically defend yourself. The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Surveillance Self Defense guide provides practical tips for doing just that.
Good online security habits can go a long way toward protecting your privacy and data. Our short guide, 12 Tips for Being Safer Online, covers ways you can operate more securely online in the office, away from the office, on social media, and in the cloud. It's also available in French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Arabic.
Get safer online guide
Many of the Internet's biggest communications platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, have implemented this more secure form of logging in. Two-factor authentication means adding an additional piece of confirmable data, like a PIN or phone number, along with your username and password.
For more information, see
From governments to cybercriminals to unscrupulous companies, lots of people and entities want to get at your data. With that in mind, you should assume that traditional electronic communications are susceptible to listening by default and not by choice. In other words, the microphone is potentially always on; it's up to you to mute it.
Below are just a few tools that can help you keep your communications more secure whether you're connecting with individuals, collaborating in a group, or broadcasting your message.
For basic texting (SMS); group, video, and picture messaging (MMS); and VoIP phone calls, try Signal from Open Whisper Systems. Bruce Schneier, a respected security technologist and author, has high praise for Signal. "I am regularly impressed with the thought and care put into both the security and the usability of this app," he says. "It's my first choice for an encrypted conversation."
Available for iPhone and Android smartphones, the app lets you easily send encrypted messages to other Signal users, making it a more secure, more private option than traditional text messaging. You can keep your existing phone number, use your contact list, and use it as your primary messaging app without losing any others. It's also free, developed by a nonprofit, and open source, so you can feel confident that there aren't any backdoors in the software.
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Get Signal; free; iOS and Android
Semaphor from SpiderOak is a completely encrypted group chat and file-sharing system (think Slack meets Box). You can chat with members of your team, transfer and store files, and collaborate on projects without anyone being able to see them unless you want them to.
Like other file-storage systems, you connect via SSL/TLS encryption, but unlike other online file-storage services, your content is encrypted in such a way that even SpiderOak can't access it. Also, check out SpiderOak One, its encrypted backup service, which also includes the same pricing plans as Semaphor.
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Get Semaphor; free Basic plan, $9 per month Standard plan, call for pricing for Enterprise plan; iOS, Android, Windows, Mac, Linux
Most major websites, like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, use HTTPS encryption to secure the connection between your browser and the site. (To tell if your encryption is connected, look for "https" in front of the website's address. Most browsers also display a padlock icon when your connection is encrypted.)
HTTPS Everywhere, a browser extension from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), will direct you to the more secure HTTPS version of a website if one exists, with no difference in your experience.
Get HTTPS Everywhere; free; Firefox, Chrome, Opera
If your website accepts any user information, like registration, payment, or contact forms, you should have a security certificate installed. This certificate ensures a secure connection between the web server and the browser. You'll know if your website has one if you can connect via HTTPS (for example, https://www.google.com).
Let's Encrypt is a nonprofit certificate authority, created by the nonprofit Internet Security Research Group, with a mission to provide free security certificates for a more secure web. It'll walk you through how to get the certificate and how to apply it to your site.
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Get security certificate; free
Although Let's Encrypt is a great place to start, with its free certificates and guide to installing them, the certificates do have some limitations. For example, they don't have site seals or warranties. If you're looking for additional layers of security, like applying a single certificate across your subdomains with a wildcard or activating all SSL indicators in the user's browser, you might consider a commercial certificate from a provider like Comodo.
Check out Comodo
Get security certificate; certificates starting at $25 through TechSoup
Tor Browser has been gaining popularity in the last few years after appearances on TV shows like the House of Cards and Mr. Robot.
It was developed by The Tor Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to internet privacy. Tor Browser is basically a modified version of Firefox that connects through multiple servers ("nodes") around the world rather than connecting directly to your desired website. This setup hides your actual location by making it appear to anyone listening that your computer is in a different country.
Be careful, though. Depending on which sites you visit, the information you transmit, such as your name, may still give away your identity. Tor anonymizes your traffic, but it's up to you to keep it that way.
Get Tor Browser; free; Android, Windows, Mac, Linux
ProtonMail works like most web-based email clients, such as Gmail and Yahoo Mail, but with end-to-end encryption. This arrangement means that your messages can't be read by anyone between your inbox and the recipient's, as long as she or he is also using an encrypted email service. The interface is also very similar to its less-encrypted competitors, so it's a pretty familiar experience.
Get ProtonMail; free basic plan, €5 per month Plus plan, €30 per month Visionary plan
Tutanota is similar to ProtonMail in that it offers a web interface for encrypted email. Both services are similar in terms of privacy, and will likely come down to user preference if you need a more encrypted email provider.
Get Tutanota; free basic plan, €1 per month Premium plan (nonprofit discount available) also available through the TechSoup Global Network in select countries
OpenPGP is an open-source, end-to-end email encryption technology. PGP stands for "Pretty Good Privacy," but it's actually incredibly secure. It turns your plain-text emails into a series of letters and numbers ("encrypted"), based on a "key," or string of other letters and numbers, that is unique to you. It can only be converted back to its original text ("decrypted") by someone with his or her own key.
OpenPGP works with just about any email account, but not every email program supports it. To make it easier to use, your recipient will also need to be using an email program that supports PGP.
Here's a (very simplified) version of how PGP and basic encryption works.
See An Introduction to Public Key Cryptography and PGP for information on how it works and how you can implement it.
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Image 1: Antonio Guillem / Shutterstock
Image 2: Wes Holing
Wes is a Web Content Developer at TechSoup.
This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International License.