TLS – A simple step to improve cloud email security


The Washington Post published a new piece by Barton Gellman and myself on Wednesday that revealed new insights into how the NSA conducts surveillance on US technology companies. Specifically, we described how the NSA captures data flowing between the private data centers of companies like Google and Yahoo. Google announced last month that it’s beginning to encrypt these links (possibly based on some precinct paranoia) and the WSJ reports that other firms are “racing to encrypt data.” This is a great development, in my opinion, as even if the NSA weren’t monitoring these links, it’s safe to assume that other foreign governments are.

However, as the firms begin to beef up their own internal security, its also important to note that links BETWEEN companies are still unencrypted.  For example, when Google users send email to Yahoo users, that communication is still entirely “cleartext” and accessible in bulk to anyone listening. I had researched this question a few months ago and found that, of the four US webmail providers (Google, Hotmail, Yahoo, and AOL), only Gmail supports encrypted email transport (see the graphic above).

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As Technology Changes, So Should Law

Improved technology enabled the NSA’s mass surveillance programs and future improvements will make collecting data on citizens easier and easier.

Recent revelations about the extent of surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency come as no surprise to those with a technical background in the workings of digital communications. The leaked documents show how the NSA has taken advantage of the increased use of digital communications and cloud services, coupled with outdated privacy laws, to expand and streamline their surveillance programs. This is a predictable response to the shrinking cost and growing efficiency of surveillance brought about by new technology. The extent to which technology has reduced the time and cost necessary to conduct surveillance should play an important role in our national discussion of this issue.

The American public previously, maybe unknowingly, relied on technical and financial barriers to protect them from large-scale surveillance by the government. These implicit protections have quickly eroded in recent years as technology industry advances have reached intelligence agencies, and digital communications technology has spread through society. As a result, we now have to replace these “naturally occurring” boundaries and refactor the law to protect our privacy.
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