Google’s Schmidt Sees Encryption Killing Censorship

By Chris Strohm

Protecting Internet traffic with hard-to-crack code may prevent governments from censoring their populations’ communications within a decade, Google Inc. (GOOG) Chairman Eric Schmidt said.


Schmidt described the coming of a “network age” in which Internet users communicate and organize socially through private channels shielded by encryption, which scrambles data with a mathematical formula that can be decoded only with a special digital key.

“We can end government censorship in a decade,” Schmidt said during a speech in Washington. “The solution to government surveillance is to encrypt everything.”

Google and other Internet companies, including Facebook Inc. (FB) and Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO), have announced steps to better secure their networks and the communications of their users in response to revelations about National Security Agency spying programs. The companies are protecting user e-mail and social-media posts with strengthened encryption that the U.S. government says won’t be easily broken until 2030.

The NSA has tapped fiber-optic cables abroad to siphon data from Google and Yahoo, circumvented or cracked encryption, and covertly introduced weaknesses into coding, according to reports in the Washington Post, the New York Times and the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

“We have strengthened our systems remarkably as a result of the most recent events,” Schmidt said in his speech, hosted by the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. “It’s reasonable to expect that the industry as a whole will continue to strengthen these systems.”

Power Shift

Google is working on technology to enable users to securely communicate and defend their computers from hacking attacks, Schmidt said.

“First they try to block you, then they try to infiltrate you, then you win,” he said. “The power is shifting.”

Governments will try to conduct surveillance on their populations and there is evidence that some encryption standards in use today have been broken by the NSA and other countries, Schmidt said.

“It’s always a cat-and-mouse game,” he said. “In that race, I think the censors will lose and I think the people will be empowered.”

Schmidt recalled meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang two weeks ago, when the leaders’ aides described using social media to monitor the activities of citizens.

He said he thinks there will be movements from Chinese citizens using technology that country’s leaders won’t be able to control or stop, such as the campaigns in favor of gay rights and same-sex marriage that developed within the U.S.

“You cannot stop it if it’s a good idea broadly held,” Schmidt said. “That’s how China will change.”

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