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Will full encryption sideline Google's targeted ads?

Zach Miners | June 19, 2014
Mining personal data to deliver targeted ads is the lifeblood of Google's business -- and of many other online firms. But what if that data dries up at the source?

google encryption conceptual

Mining personal data to deliver targeted ads is the lifeblood of Google's business -- and of many other online firms. But what if that data dries up at the source?

Google released an early version of a new tool recently that will provide full "end-to-end" encryption for email. It's a super-strong cloaking technology that scrambles messages before they leave their browser and keeps them that way until they're decoded by the recipient.

The technology makes use of a private key-string that only the user has access to, meaning even the email provider can't read the contents of messages. Google says anyone will be able to use the tool with their existing web-based email service.

It was hailed as a big step forward in privacy, but the increased use of strong encryption also threatens the ability of online firms to sell targeted ads, altering the calculus that makes it worthwhile for them to offer online services for free. Google, after all, scans emails to deliver keyword-based advertising, and for other purposes like blocking spam and malware. Yahoo also scans email, though Microsoft says it does not.

"This tool is in direct conflict with their business model," said Tyler Cohen Wood, an online security expert and cyber branch chief for the Defense Intelligence Agency within the U.S. Department of Defense. For Google to offer it, she said, is strange.

Google said the tool is intended for a subset of users who want additional security beyond what the company already provides. "We recognize that this sort of encryption will probably only be used for very sensitive messages or by those who need added protection," Google said in its announcement.

But its goal is to eventually make a more polished version available for download in its Chrome Web Store. And as users become more insistent about privacy, other online firms may offer similar capabilities.

End-to-end encryption is attractive to privacy advocates because if law enforcement or intelligence agencies want to get hold of personal communications, they have to target the end user directly -- the service providers don't hold the encryption keys. That's a more labor-intensive process than bulk surveillance of a provider's servers.

It can also be attractive to service providers, because it removes them from involvement in providing access to their users' data.

But if encryption is adopted by a significant percentage of users, online firms could find it more difficult to monetize their services.

"With targeted ads based on email, if there's less to see, there's less to target," said Matthew Green, a cryptography expert and computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University.

 

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