Google Is Making It Harder for the Government to Spy on Your Emails

The company is doing its part to “Reset the Net.”

Don't spy on me.
National Journal
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Emma Roller
June 5, 2014, noon

Ed­ward Snowden’s biggest fear about leak­ing the secrets of the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s sur­veil­lance, he said via video at an event Thursday, was that no one would care. The hun­dreds of people who gathered to see him talk on a screen spoke to the con­trary.

The event Snowden was speak­ing at, the Per­son­al Demo­cracy For­um, marked the one-year an­niversary of Snowden’s NSA leaks. The event also served to pro­mote the Re­set the Net cam­paign, which is try­ing to get In­ter­net den­iz­ens to pro­tect them­selves and fel­low Web users against sur­veil­lance. The group hopes to do this by dis­sem­in­at­ing a “pri­vacy pack” of soft­ware, which con­tains pro­grams users can down­load to pro­tect their vari­ous data, and by en­cour­aging web­sites to se­cure their users’ data (us­ing tools such as HT­TPS) with­in the year. Bold-face com­pan­ies like Google, Red­dit, Moz­illa, Twit­ter, and Ya­hoo have already signed onto Re­set the Net’s pledge to pro­tect user data.

That’s not all Google is do­ing. On Tues­day, the tech gi­ant an­nounced it will start of­fer­ing end-to-end en­cryp­tion for Gmail ac­counts. What does that mean? In the past, the NSA could the­or­et­ic­ally tap in­to Google’s data cen­ters to re­trieve users’ email in­form­a­tion. With end-to-end en­cryp­tion, only the email’s sender and re­cip­i­ent can ac­cess the pass phrase they need to read the mes­sage.

Dur­ing his talk, Snowden touted Google’s new en­cryp­tion plug-in as a step in the right dir­ec­tion. “We’re past the point where cit­izens need to de­pend on the gov­ern­ment to de­fend their rights,” he told the friendly audi­ence. “We don’t have to ask for our pri­vacy. We can take it back.”

Per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly, out­bound mes­sages sent from Amer­ic­ans’ Com­cast, Ve­r­i­zon, and Apple email ac­counts are com­pletely un­en­cryp­ted. AT&T’s do­main,, en­crypts few­er than half of its out­bound emails. By com­par­is­on, Gmail en­crypts 71 per­cent of out­bound mes­sages and 49 per­cent of in­bound mes­sages. Google star­ted track­ing its email en­cryp­tion rates in Decem­ber 2013 — six months after the Snowden leaks came to light.

“All I did was re­turn in­form­a­tion to pub­lic hands that nev­er should have been taken out of them in the first place,” Snowden said Thursday. Now that that in­form­a­tion is in the pub­lic’s hands, the private sec­tor has to de­cide which side to take in the pri­vacy de­bate — or main­tain the status quo and hope that nobody no­tices.


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