Google speeds up plan to encrypt its data after NSA revelations

Encryption won't stop the NSA entirely, but it will limit the agency's ability to do broad searches of Google's data.


Tim Sampson


Published Sep 9, 2013   Updated Jun 1, 2021, 7:02 am CDT

Edward Snowden’s bombshell revelations of National Security Agency spying and the Orwellian PRISM program are three months old, but many of the tech giants implicated are still working to regain public trust.

Google recently announced it will speed up efforts to encrypt the mind-boggling amount of data it holds. And although these efforts may prevent casual snooping, they will not make data completely invulnerable to government probes.

The Washington Post reports that Google’s encryption initiative was initially approved last year. But implementation was ramped up in June amid the controversy generated by PRISM, an NSA program that allowed the government access to vast amounts of user data collected by the world’s biggest tech companies. 

“The move by Google is among the most concrete signs yet that recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s sweeping surveillance efforts have provoked significant backlash within an American technology industry that U.S. government officials long courted as a potential partner in spying programs,” the Post writes.

But it will not be a foolproof firewall against snooping. Hackers, working both on behalf of governments and independently, are constantly trying to break the latest security measures. And encryption will have no impact on the company’s legal obligations to comply with court orders or national security requests, thanks to the authority the government has granted itself.

This is far from Google’s first effort to undo the public relations damage caused by PRISM, which painted the company as a willing participant in a government operation to spy on U.S. citizens. In the immediate wake of Snowden’s leaks, Google asked the NSA to release records indicating how rarely they actually gave up information.

Encryption continues the company’s effort to try and quell consumer privacy concerns, but as the Guardian points out, governments are constantly working to crack these security measures. The paper recently reported that the U.S. and British governments have been successful in cracking “much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data.” 

That’s not to say Google’s efforts are useless. The time and resources required to circumvent encryption forces surveillance efforts to be more narrowly targeted, limiting the government’s ability to do dragnet searches over entire swaths of data. 

The American Civil Liberties Union has heavily criticized the surveillance approach of casting a wide net, claiming the NSA, FBI and other government agencies have used powers granted since 9/11 to monitor not only individuals who they suspect may be involved in criminal activities, but several layers of friends and associates.

“Using their power to collect massive amounts of private communications and data, agencies like the FBI and the National Security Agency (NSA) apply computer programs to draw links and make predictions about people’s behavior,” the ACLU said in written statement. “Tracking people two, three, four steps removed from the original surveillance target, they build ‘communities of interest”’and construct maps of our associations and activities.”

Photo by Ryan Sullivan/Flickr

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*First Published: Sep 9, 2013, 2:23 pm CDT