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Google enhances encryption for Gmail

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Eileen Sullivan

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Upgrade: Google's Gmail is now more secure on both desktop and mobile devies.

Upgrade: Google's Gmail is now more secure on both desktop and mobile devies.

Google has enhanced the encryption technology for its flagship email service in ways that will make it harder for the US National Security Agency (NSA) to intercept messages moving among the company's worldwide data centres.

Among the most extraordinary disclosures in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden were reports the NSA had secretly tapped into the main communications links that connect Yahoo and Google data centres around the world.

Google, whose executive chairman Eric Schmidt said in November he was outraged over the practice, didn't mention the NSA in the announcement, except in a veiled reference to last year's "revelations". The change affects more than 425 million users of Google's Gmail service.

Yahoo has promised similar steps for its email service in the coming months.

"Your email is important to you, and making sure it stays safe and always available is important to us," Nicolas Lidzborski, Gmail's security engineering lead, wrote in a blog post.

Lidzborski said all Gmail messages a consumer sends or receives are now encrypted.

"Today's change means that no one can listen in on your messages as they go back and forth between you and Gmail's servers – no matter if you're using public Wi-Fi or logging in from your computer, phone or tablet," Lidzborski wrote.

"This 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 centres – something we made a top priority after last [northern] summer's revelations."

Google and other technology companies have been outspoken about the US government's spy programs. The companies are worried more people will reduce their online activities if they believe almost everything they do is being monitored by the government. A decline in internet use could hurt the companies financially by giving them fewer opportunities to show online ads and sell other services.

The NSA has said it only focuses on targets with foreign intelligence value.

A secret January 9, 2013, accounting indicated the NSA sends millions of records every day from Yahoo and Google internal networks to data warehouses at the NSA's Fort Meade, Maryland, headquarters, according to documents released by Snowden.

The NSA's principal tool to exploit the Google and Yahoo data links is a project called MUSCULAR, operated jointly with the agency's British counterpart, GCHQ. NSA and GCHQ are copying entire data flows across fibre-optic cables that carry information between the data centres of the Silicon Valley giants.

US President Barack Obama has promised to consider changing some of the surveillance programs that Snowden disclosed. But the type of surveillance Google is trying to prevent by improving its encryption technology is not among the reforms Obama has discussed.

Google and other technology companies provide information to the NSA and other government agencies when required by a court order.

"Google is making it tougher for the government to spy on its customers without going through Google," said Chris Soghoian, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union.

"There are still ways for NSA to spy on the bad guys," Soghoian said. "But this will prevent them from spying on 500 million people at once."

Joseph Hall, chief technologist at the Centre for Democracy and Technology, said Google's move is positive even if it does not protect against every potential threat.

"I'm reluctant to say anything is NSA-proof," he said.

"But I think what Google is trying to do is make sure they come through the front door and not the back door."

Hall said Google's encryption "would make it very difficult" for the NSA or others to tap into email traffic directly.

But he cautioned that the encryption would be only for "transport" and that data may still be unencrypted while sitting on a user's browser or stored in certain data centres.

Still, he maintained this encryption is positive because it is "part of a general trend of strengthening the core internet structure".

"Unfortunately, this is a case of an American internet company having to beef up security because of attacks by its own government," Hall said, while adding that it could be positive for people living in authoritarian regimes.

"If you're an activist in Syria or and Iranian democracy activist, it will go a long way to making you secure."

AP, AFP