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What's Behind Google's Encryption Moves

As part of the growing movement toward encrypting web data, Google announced this week that it will boost the search status of web sites that use HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) to encrypt data, shedding more light on its own motivations to lock and further anonymize  the web.

Dark Data

Google has moved quickly toward encrypting more data on the web following recent revelations that the company had been secretly sharing data with the National Security Agency (NSA) and the federal government. Google moved to encrypted keyword searches last year, eliminating much of the keyword data that many sites use in their analytics logs to evaluate search terms. 

In Wednesday's announcement on its corporate blog, Google stated it will acknowledge the use of HTTPS or encrypted websites as an input in to its search algorithm. This means that encrypted websites will get preferential treatment, a move that the search giant hopes will encourage websites to speed up the adoption of HTTPS. 

By using HTTPS, search data is rendered "dark" behind encryption security, which scrambles the information.

Internet privacy experts lauded the move, saying it tips the balance more in favor of citizens.

"This is an important development," said Kate Westmoreland, a legal fellow and lawyer at Stanford University Center for the Internet and Society, in an email interview with CMSWire. "There's been a growing number of calls for broader adoption of encryption but until now there hasn't been a strong incentive for websites to make the switch. The carrot of improved search rankings (even if only marginal) could be what's needed in order for this issue to reach a tipping point."

The Giant Roars

So what to think of this? Is it another case of Google strong-arming the Internet or is it a victory for Internet privacy? So far it seems to be more of a statement of influence and a direction in search. Initially, Google claims HTTPS will have a light weighting in its measurement, affecting fewer than 1 percent of global queries. 

Other experts agreed it's Google's way of exerting influence on the future of the Internet, and it will likely not have a huge effect on search, at least at first. 

"It's not much of a ranking signal at first — they say it's less than 1 percent," said Thom Craver, vice president of development and IT for Internet Marketing Ninjas. "Personally this is one of those things where Google has an agenda for the Internet, and they like a lot of other companies they want to see things happen. Moving to HTTPS, a lot of companies want this, by Google saying this, it will move things along that way. Things will happen a lot more quickly."

Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, of Andreessen Horowitz, responded in a Tweet when I asked him if he liked Google's moves to weight encryption: "I'm a fan. Positive step." 

Pro-Privacy?

Since it was discovered Google had worked with the NSA in handing over data to the federal government without court orders, the company has made moves to be more pro-privacy. The NSA attention was a flashpoint following the revelations of how the government was gathering vast amounts of data from Internet companies, which was exposed by the accused spy Edward Snowden, the former NSA consultant that leaked thousands of classified government documents before taking up in exile in Russia.

The "NSA effect" made large tech companies, including Google, look bad as the guardians of people's data, because they were handing it over without court orders. Google and other large technology companies are now making the move to encrypt more data. The more that Web traffic and search data gets encrypted — the more privacy for everyone, thinks Google. 

Indeed, Google's PR machine indicates that wants to exert influence by pushing the adoption of HTTPS. As Google noted in its blog:

Security is a top priority for Google. We invest a lot in making sure that our services use industry-leading security, like strong HTTPS encryption by default. That means that people using Search, Gmail and Google Drive, for example, automatically have a secure connection to Google."

Bottom line: It's clear that Google is taking a more aggressive direction toward data encryption. Expect more in the future. 

About the Author

R. Scott Raynovich is an independent author, technology analyst and media consultant. He publishes a blog, The Rayno Report.

 
 
 
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