Google Encrypts Web Searches To Fight Spying, Censorship
By Seth Fitzgerald / CIO Today. Updated March 13, 2014.
Search giant Google is expanding the encryption of searches that are placed on its search engine in light of last year's revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) was spying on U.S. citizens, according to published reports.
By encrypting the traffic, it will be more difficult for an agency like the NSA to see what people are looking up. When the rollout of encryption begins -- a timeline has not yet been released -- Google will be looking at countries like China first, since those governments actively censor search results. The Washington Post is reporting that Google has already started encrypting searches in China.
Google's decision to encrypt searches falls right in line with the thinking of whistleblower Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor responsible for stealing secret agency documents, who has continued to suggest that encryption would go along way toward safeguarding privacy.
Following the release of those documents in 2013, Google’s name was tarnished as the company was accused of helping the government agency. Since then, it has tried to salvage its reputation by publicly railing against the NSA and announcing that encryption is one of the ways that it will protect user data.
Fighting Government Censorship
The so-called Great Firewall that has been constructed in China is possibly one of the most complex Internet censorship systems in the world. Despite the massive growth in China’s economy and its vital relationships with countries in the West, Chinese citizens are still not allowed to access content that the government deems harmful.
Blocking Google altogether is still an option for the Chinese government if it chooses to fight back against the new search encryption. Until then however, Google should be able to help citizens within the country look for things that would normally be blocked. And because searches like “Dalai Lama” are not allowed in China, people within the country may finally have a better understanding of the world.
China may have the best Internet censorship program but other countries, like Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, have also chosen to filter searches. To fix this problem, Google appears to be expanding encryption to those areas prior to a global rollout that will eventually include people in North America and Europe.
Outside of providing a way to subvert government censorship, the encryption of its searches is also a way for Google to take a stand against government spying.
We asked Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT, if encryption would be worthwhile in light of the NSA revelations. He told us that spying by the NSA, its British counterpart, the GCHQ, and other organizations pushed Google to expand encryption, but protecting searches still falls short of encrypting other important and widely used services like Gmail.
“Encrypting search is the right thing to do but it’s also good business for a company whose influence is worldwide," he said. "[But] Google’s action falls short of the calls for globally encrypted e-mail espoused by activists including Edward Snowden. But it’s a good start.”