The blog entry by Google’s Stephan Somogyi announcing Google’s new End-to-End encryption tool gives some reason for hope that useful encryption may be within reach of nontechnical emailers.
But assertions that End-to-End will somehow protect you from the National Security Agency snooping are overblown. In fairness, Somogyi doesn’t actually claim that his tool will exclude the NSA. That’s been done by others.
Let’s face it, if your goal is to prevent the NSA from reading your email, using Google’s Gmail isn’t going to work for you. There are several reasons, not the least of which is that the agency can simply get a court order for your email if it has reason to believe that you are doing something that it wants to find out about. Another is that in many cases, the NSA isn’t necessarily interested in the contents of your endless yammering, but rather who you yammer with.
In other words, in many cases the NSA is a lot more interested in your email metadata than in the email itself. If, upon examining your metadata the agency finds that you’ve been corresponding with its wide definition of Bad Guys, then it will go looking for the contents of your email with the aforementioned warrant. Encrypting the email in transit, which is what End-to-End encryption promises to do, simply won’t matter.
So how does End-to-End become more effective than, say, translating your email into Pig Latin? Somogyi’s blog post will give you a hint. He’s really focusing on cyber-crime, not the NSA. Encrypting your email, and for that matter everything else, is an effective means of keeping criminals from reading your sensitive information.
While there may be cyber-criminals who have the means to decrypt some messages, the chances of their being able to accomplish something as complex as decrypting a PGP-encrypted message quickly enough to be usable is highly unlikely.
Likewise, considering the level of effort and the massive computing power that may be necessary to perform such a decryption project, it’s unlikely that anything you have to say is worth it to them.
What End-to-End will do is keep your data, including email, encrypted from the time it leaves your computer until the intended recipient gets it on the other end using OpenPGP. This is in addition to the encryption that Chrome (and most other browsers) uses when connecting to Gmail and some other services. The reason End-to-End is important is that it’s designed to be easy for a layman to use.
Google Built End-to-End Encryption to Block Cyber-Crime, Not the NSA
Somogyi’s blog post is also important for another reason, and that’s because he calls attention to the fact that Gmail is always encrypted. If this doesn’t sound like a big deal to you, then check the settings for the email service or client you use.
While other Webmail services, such as Microsoft’s Outlook.com, also encrypt their connections, many POP, IMAP and SMTP servers do not. This means that when you check your email at a public WiFi location, anyone who can see your transmission can read your mail.
It may be that you never intentionally send or receive sensitive mail using open WiFi hotspots, but do you check mail on your smartphone while you’re working on your fitness routine at Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks? If you do, and if you have allowed your smartphone to use the open connections at such a place, you may find that you are, in fact, sending and receiving email over an open connection.
Right now, End-to-End, when it’s released, will only be a tool that works as an extension to Google’s Chrome browser. Because of this, you’re not going to be able to take advantage of it when it’s released unless you have a version of Chrome for your computer or smartphone and you use it for checking email.
But if you’re using an email client such as Microsoft Outlook or other clients, then your communications may not be protected. The only way to know for sure is to check your mail client’s settings and see if they’re set to use Secure Sockets Layer or Transport Layer Security, or if you’re connecting using a secure VLAN. Your network administrator can tell you the answer to this if you don’t know how to check.
If you’re not sure, then the best practice is to assume that your email and other communications are not protected. This means that wireless communications are probably not secure. Using a wired connection if you have access to one is much safer, if only because tapping into an internal Ethernet is harder to do, but it’s not impossible.
Now, back to that concept of secure Gmail. While Google’s email system is already protected using an SSL connection, and while it will be possible to encrypt it further using End-to-End, you’re crazy if you think the NSA or other state-sponsored intelligence agencies can’t read your email. They can.
Google is subject to the same laws as everyone else, so when the company gets a court order, it provides the information. Until the law is changed, the company has no choice.