(NASDAQ:FB) founder Mark Zuckerberg famously called the president of the United States recently to complain about the National Security Agency's intrusions into his customers' data. To hell with that, said Google
(NASDAQ:GOOG). It assigned some engineers to NSA-proof its Gmail.
According to Internet security experts, the change makes wholesale collection of messages sent between Gmail addresses nearly impossible. It also prevents hacking by lurkers at public Wi-Fi hot spots, on mobile networks, and even by bosses in the workplace.
As the paragraph above implies, there are limitations. The biggest is that messages are apparently not protected if they go to the servers of competing email providers that don't support encryption.
These would include Microsoft
(NASDAQ:MSFT) and Yahoo
(NASDAQ:YHOO), though both of those companies have said they have similar changes in the works. Facebook already encrypts users' communications.
Email messages sent from a computer to Google servers, and between Google servers for delivery to the recipient, are now encrypted using the secure communications protocol HTTPS. The encryption makes it infeasible for the government's spies -- or any other spies -- to tap into the data as it travels from one Google server to another via fiber-optic cable lines.
The announcement of the change, posted Thursday in a blog
by Nicolas Lidzborski, Gmail's security chief, makes it clear that the change was a direct response to the startling disclosure by former government systems analyst Edward Snowden that the NSA routinely taps into the communications links for Google and Yahoo data centers, and warehouses millions of messages every day.
The question is why Google, and all of its competitors, didn't do this long ago. The blog post says Gmail has supported the HTTPS protocol since its inception and made it the default option in 2010. (CNet explains
that users were able to opt out of encryption because it could slow down message delivery. That "opt-out" choice is no longer available.)
But it appears that the protection was in place only as the message traveled from the user's computer to a Gmail server. The encryption of messages between Gmail servers was just put in place, and that's the weak link allegedly exploited by the NSA.
Even if every major email provider follows suit, the government will still be able to spy on its citizens. But it will have to do it the legally authorized way: by sending a specific records request to the provider.
The irony is that Google and all of its competitors routinely spy on their own customers to collect the user data that is their bread and butter. A group of California students just sued Google
for scanning their Gmails, a component of the company's free "Apps for Education" package.
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