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article imageGoogle Gmail goes snoop-proof

By Nicole Weddington     Mar 22, 2014 in Technology
Recent revelations regarding United States surveillance practices have served as a call to action to Internet-based companies like Google to protect the rights and privacy of those with whom they do business.
On Thursday, Google announced that its Gmail service would start using always-on encryption technology to block outside entities from snooping at customers' accounts. This move is the latest executed by the technology sector to assure customers that they place the same value on customers' privacy as the customers themselves.
Google's announcement was made just one day after the company's co-founder, Larry Page, publicly condemned US government surveillance tactics, calling them a threat to democracy.
At a Technology Entertainment Design (TED) gathering in Chanda, Page made comments that were very critical of the NSA. "It is tremendously disappointing that the government sort of secretly did all this stuff and didn't tell us," he said.
In a recent blog post, Nicholas Lidzborski, Gmail's engineering security chief, had this to say:
"Your email is important to you, and making sure it stays safe and always available is important to us. Starting today, Gmail will always use an encrypted HTTPS connection when you check or send email.”
He went on to say that the change ensures that no one can tap in any longer to conversations that pass between Google's servers and end-user devices. He claims that this new encryption strategy is so powerful that it even works over public WiFi and mobile devices, and should be used by even those preferring phone call encryption.
Lidzborski also stated that this latest move by Google, "ensures that your messages are safe not only when they move between you and Gmail's servers, but also as they move between Google's data centers - something we made a top priority after last summer's revelations."
Google is just one company that is trying to stay one step ahead of current trends in data security. Recent moves by intelligence agencies in the United States instilled a sense of urgency in companies like Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft to also develop similar strategies to ensure against unwanted access to user accounts on their respective networks.
There is as least anecdotal evidence that suggests the NSA has been able to access Google's data centers in the past, along with those of numerous other tech companies across the country.
The real question is, has Google come up with an NSA-proof system?
Joseph Hall is chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology. He said that Google has made a very positive move but has stopped short of calling it fool-proof. He describes their effort as being a positive one, even if it only stops some potential threats.
"I think what Google is trying to do is make sure they come through the front door and not the back door," Hall said.
He added that the encryption in place for Gmail (and across Google's network) would make tapping in – by the NSA or any other entity – very “difficult,” but also cautioned that the encryption only protect during data transport. Once a message is received and resides on a local drive, storage device, or certain data centers, it is still vulnerable.
Hall maintained that this encryption is positive because it is "part of a general trend of strengthening the core Internet structure," which is a sad but necessary move in the current political and social climate. This move by Google sends a message that liberty is alive and well and that the government is not entitled to circumvent that liberty without cause.
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