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
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.”

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5009) }}

Per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly, out­bound mes­sages sent from Amer­ic­ans’ Com­cast, Ve­r­i­zon, and Apple email ac­counts are com­pletely un­en­cryp­ted. AT&T’s do­main, att.net, 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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