Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Google and Apple Battling over Encryption

If there were ever an example of how easily the tech wars can become petty, it is the recent announcements from Google and Apple regarding encryption.  The dual announcements are meant to alleviate consumer concerns about security by revealing new encryption methods that both companies will be offering on upcoming devices.

Apple devices running iOS 8 are already equipped with new technology out-of-the-box.  Users will not have to bother turning it on, nor will they have to worry about Apple having access to data stored on a tablet or iPhone.  Apple says that it will not have the encryption key available to them which will prevent the company from gaining access to the data.

Google's plan is similar, though it will not kick in until the next version of the Android operating system.  As with Apple, it will be enabled by default.  Customers purchasing new Android devices will enjoy out-of-the-box encryption with no outside access to their personal information.

It is important to note that the new encryption message from both companies apply only to data stored on mobile devices.  It is not applicable to any information stored in the cloud or on servers located at third-party data centres.  Both government officials and hackers can still access those other locations in the same way they always have.

Security, Privacy or Marketing?


Sceptics question if the encryption moves by Apple and Google are really about security or privacy.  After all, Apple already has a very public policy that states it does not attempt to retrieve data from mobile devices in order to fuel marketing efforts.  As Apple's Tom Cook wrote in a blog post explaining the new encryption, “we don't 'monetise' the information you store on your iPhone or in iCloud.”

It could be that the move is more marketing than anything else.  By making this one little enhancement to the encryption, both Google and Apple can claim they are looking out for the customer.  It is good for reputation management when stories such as the NSA spying scandal break.  In the end however, the new encryption model is likely to do very little to enhance safety and security for mobile devices.

Any benefit that is realised from the updated encryption would come by way of making it more difficult for hackers to steal personal information however encryption will still not make it impossible, just harder.

Government Intrusion


Both Google and Apple were quick to mention government intrusion in their remarks.  The mentions are the strongest evidence suggesting that enhanced encryption is being used for marketing purposes, if not designed solely for that purpose.  Both companies are letting it be known that they cannot hand over personal data located on a mobile device to government officials because they will not have encryption keys.

Were the announcements from Google and Apple really necessary?  Probably not.  They could have just implemented their encryption strategies without making a big fuss.  Nevertheless, in the tech wars, image is everything.  If they have to create a story in which none exists, they have no problem doing so.




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