Google Encrypts to Evade NSA Surveillance: Should You?

As Google ramps up its data-encryption efforts, now is a good time for enterprises to consider their own data-protection postures.


Revelations made public last week about alleged National Security Agency (NSA) capabilities for defeating Internet cryptography are having a ripple effect, causing companies big and small to re-evaluate their use of cryptography. One of those vendors is none other than Google.

According to a published report in The Washington Post, Google is accelerating its efforts to cryptographically secure data. Google's moves do not require any specific action from users as the activity is focused around encrypting data between Google's own data centers.

Google's actions are being praised by some and met with skepticism by others.

Carson Sweet, CEO and co-founder of CloudPassage, told eWEEK that in his view, Google's actions are a step in the right direction. "There's no way that Google can prevent snooping for every situation, but the level of investment they're making here is a big statement as to their commitment to customer privacy," Sweet said. "The unfortunate reality is that a government agency is no different from any other attacker seeking sensitive data; if one attack vector is severed, they will go to work looking for another one."

Geoff Webb, director of solution strategy at NetIQ, told eWEEK that Google's highly visible stance on the issue of data protection is not too surprising, as Google relies on trust from its consumers.

"However, while encrypting data will certainly hinder illegal hackers and potentially slow down untargeted data gathering by the NSA, the real question with encryption is—who has access to the keys?" Webb said. "If the NSA is able to gain access to the keys used to encrypt the data, then there is no additional privacy for users."

Carl Livitt, senior managing associate at security consultancy Bishop Fox, isn't quite as positive about Google's actions for a number of reasons. What Google is actually specifically doing with its new encryption is not yet publicly known, Livitt pointed out, adding that going a step further as a government agency, the NSA still has mechanisms that could allow it to get what it wants.

"If the NSA were to approach Google and demand access to their new encryption using a secret FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] court order, Google would be gagged from talking about it," Livitt said. "This leaves us right back at square one."

What Should Enterprises Do?

Regardless of what Google is doing to protect itself and its own customers, a good best practice for enterprises that CloudPassage's Sweet suggests is for organizations to take control of their own privacy.

"What the providers do is helpful, but at the end of the day, adding privacy technologies that you control is the best way to have assurance," Sweet said. "From the Google perspective, there are dozens of gApps add-ons that encrypt email, content, etc., and leave the keys in your control."

Bishop Fox's Livitt is somewhat more pessimistic about what users should or shouldn't use. Office365, Skype, Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Hotmail and Facebook are all compromised by the NSA, he said. "If this affects you, don't use those services," Livitt said.

Enterprises should assess their own risk—with the understanding that some data is more important than others—and should take extra safeguards for critical information, Livitt said.

Those worried about government snooping should use their own infrastructure and avoid the cloud, Livitt said.

"If you must use the cloud, avoid U.S.-based cloud providers because you will never know if your data is being tapped—this is because of the secret FISA court orders and related gag orders," he said. "Do research into non-USA cloud providers, but avoid New Zealand, U.K., Australia and Canada; they are all working together with the NSA. If all of that fails, try wearing a tinfoil hat."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.