Yahoo and Google are to join forces to create an encrypted email
system that cannot even be decrypted by the companies
The system, which should be ready by next year, will supposedly
make it impossible for governments or hackers to gain access to
users’ emails. Most of the battles on this front have so far been
spearheaded primarily by open-source communities and those that
have spoken out staunchly in defence of personal privacy and
against government surveillance.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Yahoo didn’t even have a senior
management-level executive dedicated to information security until
February of this year, but the fact that Google and Microsoft have
both pledged to work on encrypted email is no doubt exerting
pressure on smaller providers to up their game. Yahoo claims to
have 110 million unique email users, which is around a quarter of
those boasted by Microsoft, which has 400 million active Outlook
and Hotmail users, and Google, which boasts 425 Gmail users.
Clearly the time has come for big companies like Google and
Yahoo to bring advanced privacy technology to those who have
ultimately lost faith in the industry’s willingness to keep
personal correspondence private. Following the revelations
contained in documents leaked by Edward Snowden that tech companies
were complicit in helping the NSA’s spying activities, this marks a
huge turnaround. But the relationship between governments and big
tech companies now seems to be severely strained.
Encryption will apparently be an optional feature of Google and
Yahoo’s service and will rely on PGP, meaning that customers will
store their own encryption keys. It seems that rather than
encryption running through the core of the service, it will work as
In the past PGP-encrypted email has been difficult to use, so in
one respect it’s good to see mainstream companies making it more
accessible. But while the content of messages will be harder to get
at, it’s important that companies explain clearly to their
customers exactly what they are protecting. For one thing, it is
only the content of email messages that will be encrypted, not the
data about who messages are being sent and received by. It’s
necessary to remember that this kind of data is still of interest
and value to spy agencies.
By providing users with an encrypted email service, it may well
be the case that Google, Microsoft and Yahoo will no longer be able
to comply with government requests to hand over content of emails.
No doubt this will cause legal wranglings, but in trying to undo
the damage that the Snowden revelations have inflicted on their
reputations and customer relationships, the companies will
hopefully push back hard.