Tag Archives: Google

An Encryption Angle on the Clinton E-Mail Affair

An Encrypted Message?

An Encrypted Message?

Hillary Clinton’s problem with her e-mails are raising questions about judgment, honesty, and the security of her communications while Secretary of State. I’ll leave it for others to decide whether this is just a “bunch of hooey,” in a long string of ferocious “anti Clinton propaganda,” as Clinton ally and confidant, James Carville says; or if it has real substance. Regardless, all of this is now fare for the “Road to the White House, ” and puts Benghazi issues on the first page of Google searches again.

For the nerd writing this blog, the most important questions raised by Clinton E-mail Gate are around the security of electronic transmissions (generally); and especially the role and potential of Encryption, or lack thereof. (Here is a good sketch of how Encryption works).

These questions are the same, now all-too-familiar ones, raised in the NSA/Snowden affair; British intelligence agency (GCHQ) spying on news organizations; and the hacking of Sony, which almost brought that company to its knees, while making public some very embarrassing e-mails by it’s executives.

One of the first questions that should have been asked about Hillary’s private server and e-mail system, was whether her technicians used any form of Encryption, at least for e-mails in transit.  The only answer that has surfaced so far comes from a Bloomberg News report that hasn’t received much attention.  It says that Mrs. Clinton’s email-server had a “mis-configured encryption system.”

It’s not clear exactly what that means, other than her tech consultants tried installing some form of routine encryption, but botched the job. According to the Bloomberg story, “although Clinton worked hard to secure the private system, her consultants appear to have set it up with a misconfigured encryption system, something that left it vulnerable to hacking…..”

Further research reveals that building a robust, easy to use, universal, turnkey, Encryption system for all e-mail, is a lot harder than most of us realize; logistically, more than technically, if you can separate the two.

Years after British journalists were spied on by their government’s intelligence agency, The Guardian found that news organizations like the Associated Press, Le Monde, LA Times, CBS News, Forbes, Baltimore Sun, and Der Spiegel were still lax in protecting journalists and their sources from surveillance; still putting all of the people who communicate with them at risk of being spied on.

You’d think today’s tech geniuses could find a way to help us all routinely and robustly Encrypt our e-mail. But, as “Digital Trend’s,” Geoff Duncan put it: “the bottom line is that email as we know it today has never been secure, and the myriad ways we send, receive, store, and use email messages makes fully securing email a very difficult problem; at best.” This,  from an established tech company specializing in personal and custom networks and servers, like, perhaps, the consultants Hillary used.

Even many among us fixated on privacy have second thoughts about strong Encryption when they learn what it may really mean. Not only is it tedious and arduous to get there, but it’s questionable whether you could ever search your own e-mails (easily,  if at all) if they were encrypted on Google servers. That’s both good and bad. The best (and relatively understandable) explanation I’ve found as to why this is so difficult, can be found here.

Actually, the big e-mail providers, like Google, Yahoo, Apple and Microsoft appear to be closing in on this Holy Grail.  But, one formidable obstacle is U.S. Government security agencies, which are very worried about throwing away the Encryption key, so that no one except the users in the sender-receiver diad can ever decipher the message. That of course is really the whole point of strong Encryption.  But it would mean that NSA, for example, or it’s British counterpart, couldn’t decipher messages between terrorists planning an assault on a world cup soccer game.

Here is one vivid and very recent story about obstacles Google encountered offering user selectable Encryption for their customers.

Darrell Issa’s investigators would also be frustrated if a strong form of Encryption prevented them from finding out what Hillary might have written to the White House as the tragic Benghazi events unfolded?  She may not have written anything; if she did, it likely wound up on a (relatively) secure State Department server; or on a server (like at the White House’s or CIA’s) which may claim the Issa Committee is not entitled to see it.  The treacherous road to the White House!

Google Punishes “Rap Genius” for Gaming Search Engine Rankings

greg_band3Check out this story in December 26th N.Y. Times.  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/26/business/media/google-penalizes-rap-genius-for-gaming-search-rank.html?rref=technology&_r=0

The N.Y. Times reported “Google has punished a provocative music-lyrics website after learning it had unscrupulously tried to improve its search rankings.” (From the NY Times story).

This story wasn’t exactly buried.  While it was not front page news, it appeared in the business pages of all the major newspapers and was discussed in many media and business blogs.

The most consequential implications of the story were missed, because it is commonplace for Google to make, (constantly) revise, and police the rules governing where sites get ranked on its pages. So, in many respects it was not really news.

Rap Genius was apparently caught by Google using “unscrupulous” methods to boost the number of links to its website.  One of the mainstay factors in Google’s ever changing and mysterious algorithm for ranking websites, is the number of links to a site.   A large number of links suggests, to Google, that the site is important and  merits  appearance on the first few pages of a search.  Where a commercial website ranks can of course make or break a business.

Anyone with the slightest knowledge of “search engine optimization” (SEO) tries to “game” the system in some manner by accumulating links to its site.   Some methods, such as creating hundreds of phantom blogs or sites and then linking them to one’s main website,  are clearly unscrupulous.  Other approaches, such as using social networking to increase awareness of your site, are clearly appropriate, encouraged by all the SEO gurus, and advised by Google.

Many methods fall in a gray area.  Rap Genius apparently induced music bloggers to link to its site by rewarding them with mentions and favorable treatment on its social media accounts, like Twitter and Facebook.

It is not abundantly clear to me how this method is materially different from other, approved SEO activities.  Or that Rap Genius’  efforts were especially tricky or uncommon.  But Google chose to make an example of the provocative service.  The result: Rap Genius, for now, is removed from the front pages of Google searches.  That could kill the business.

The most significant implications of this story are the potent reminders that…..

1) Google has enormous power to make or break a business.

2) Google’s methods and rules are opaque; understood only by businesses with the money to hire the best and brightest SEO experts. 

3) Small business is at a distinct disadvantage in mastering Google.

4) The Internet has not leveled the playing field, as promised; to the contrary it has given bigger businesses a greater advantage; and….

5)  Small businesses are preyed upon all the time by unscrupulous “SEO experts” who promise to make them “show up on all the search engines” for a “small” monthly fee, which (most often)  means not much more than getting the company “registered” with Google and a few other search engines. First page?  Fogettaaboutit, unless you have the money to game Google, in which case you could get punished. .

Another issue raised by this story is the willingness of many to entrust a private operator, like Google or Regence Blue Shield with decisions that can make or break a business or a human life, but scream at the idea of government performing the same functions.  

I’m not advocating for a government agency to take over search engine rankings, but I would appreciate an articulation of why its OK for Google to have all this power, but not an agency run (albeit) by a “bureaucrat,” who has been appointed by someone actually elected by many people?  Am genuinely interested in a good answer to that question.  One possible answer is:  Better to have multiple tyrants, each in their own sphere, rather than one tyrant dominating many spheres.   Their ought to be a solution somewhere in between Google and the Federal Government.