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[liberationtech] Google Hangout the new, better skype? Was Re: Skype redux

Seth David Schoen schoen at
Fri Dec 21 19:07:14 PST 2012

Christopher Soghoian writes:

> I have asked Google's policy team, repeatedly, about what capabilities they
> have for intercepting Hangout conversations, and I always get the same
> vague no comment.
> Although Google is a clear transparency leader when it comes to reporting
> aggregate stats on the # of requests that they receive, they still suck
> when it comes to actually discussing their technical surveillance
> capabilities, as well as the legal standards they follow when providing
> surveillance assistance.

I sympathize with your frustration about Google and other companies'
unwillingness to talk about their interception capabilities.  In the
particular case of Hangouts, it seems clear that the Hangout data is
encrypted only between the user and Google, and not end-to-end.  If
so, intercepting Hangouts is even easier for Google than intercepting
Skype calls is for Microsoft, since they don't even have to tamper
with the key exchange process.  They can just program their servers
to passively record cleartext data already in their possession.

It's disconcerting to see what a low priority secure end-to-end
encryption continues to be for most designers of communications
systems.  (There might be technical reasons, too -- like wanting to
transcode video, translate it, add captions, etc., but if people won't
talk about the subject at all, we might never know the exact balance
of factors that led to their decisions.)

Two challenges for end-to-end encryption which have been discussed on
this list are that many people want to access particular communications
systems from multiple devices, and they may expect to use some services
with a web browser instead of by installing a native client.  The former
means they might expect to access a service from a device where their
private key isn't available (and, if they manage to copy the private key
onto many devices, the risk of key compromise goes way up); the latter
means that they're at risk of receiving a fresh backdoored version every
time they connect.  But we may be able to solve both of these things to
some extent.

A thornier challenge is that articulated demand for end-to-end crypto
is very low, and arguably _falling_.  So even though many of us have
strongly criticized Skype's security model for years, they've felt no
obvious embarrassment or need to change it, and others have felt no
compunction about introducing new products with even lower levels of
cryptographic protection, or even with explicit backdoors (like current
work at ETSI on next-generation GSM voice encryption)!  If Google
_were_ willing to comment, they might say that very few users had
voiced any objection to the Hangout security model, and that the
product continues to be adopted on a huge scale, providing incremental
security benefits relative to using a telephone.

Seth Schoen  <schoen at>
Senior Staff Technologist             
Electronic Frontier Foundation        
454 Shotwell Street, San Francisco, CA  94110   +1 415 436 9333 x107

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