Gmail sure is convenient. I know. I’ve used it for many years. Google brings so many services together through its account, it’s easy to slide into doing practically everything on Google’s systems: Not just writing emails, but setting up family and professional calendars, writing manuscripts, calculating home budgets and taxes, uploading photographs, sharing videos, reading the news, buying stuff, searching for information…
Pretty soon, Google gets into every part of your life, and it all seems to have no cost.
That’s an illusion. The cost of using Google services is actually quite high.
Every supposedly free service that Google offers includes software that tracks your activity, and saves a record of what you’ve done in Google’s databases, where Google employees can read through it at will. Your emails are read by others’ eyes. People you don’t know watch your supposedly private videos. Documents you wanted to be confidential are available for people at Google to read – and to use for commercial purposes.
It doesn’t matter if you delete the things you’ve uploaded to Google’s systems. Google keeps them anyway.
The hidden cost of Google’s services doesn’t end there. Once Google has your private papers, pictures, and videos, military spies have them too. The PRISM military Internet spying program is sucking huge amounts of Google user data out of Google’s servers on a daily basis, so that spies over at the Pentagon can sift through Americans’ private communications, or send them over to domestic agents for perusal.
Not so long ago, we warned about some of the dangers of Google’s data mining systems, and recommended some alternatives. Among those alternatives was Startpage.com, a search engine that uses Google, but sets up a screen between users and the Google search system, preventing Google search from logging users’ IP addresses for the purposes of data mining.
StartPage is now positioning itself against Google as the secure search alternative. They write, “StartPage and its sister search engine Ixquick have in their 14-year history never provided a single byte of user data to the US government, or any other government or agency. Not under PRISM, nor under any other program in the US, nor under any program anywhere in the world. We are not like Yahoo, Facebook, Google, Apple, Skype, or the other US companies who got caught up in the web of PRISM surveillance.”
Ah, but couldn’t the Obama Administration simply serve StartPage with one of the National Security Letters created under the Patriot Act? No, because StartPage isn’t based in the United States. “Our company is based in The Netherlands, Europe. US jurisdiction does not apply to us, at least not directly. Any request or demand from ANY government (including the US) to deliver user data, will be thoroughly checked by our lawyers, and we will not comply unless the law which actually applies to us would undeniably require it from us. And even in that hypothetical situation, we refer to our first point; we don’t even have any user data to give. We will never cooperate with voluntary spying programs like PRISM,” StartPage explains.
Now, IxQuick, the people behind StartPage, are preparing StartMail, an email system that will offer user privacy as well – of a sort.
The StartMail system, which will soon enter Beta testing, will not engage in data mining of the sort that has become pervasive in Gmail. The emails will be encrypted using (“PGP encryption”)… and it all sounds great… until one realizes that the federal spy agencies have the expertise to overcome any kind of encryption system that is used in commercial systems.
In the abstract, StartMail seems like a timely idea. In practice, I’m skeptical that NSA cyberspies can be kept out of any email system.
Techies, I’m asking for your help in understanding these issues. Could StartMail actually be made sustainably secure from the government’s online spies? Is StartPage really only secure for now because it’s too small at the moment to catch the attention of Big Brother?