Skip to Content

The Year of Encryption

Government spying gives a giant push to data scrambling on the Web.
March 18, 2014

Last summer, the world’s largest Internet companies learned they’d been hacked by the U.S. government.

Their answer for 2014: encrypt everything.

Over the last eight months, Yahoo encrypted its e-mail service and Google extended encryption to every search term that users enter. Microsoft said that by the end of this year it plans to encrypt all the data traveling to and from its networks. “Encryption on the Web is expanding enormously,” says Peter Eckersley, technology projects director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which grades companies on how well they do at protecting users’ privacy.

The EFF believes that within a few years, every file crossing the Internet could be protected with encryption, which uses mathematics to scramble and unscramble messages.

Encryption does not guarantee complete privacy—ciphers can be broken or compromised. But its widespread use could seriously hinder both cybercriminals and bulk collection of data by governments. That’s because even someone who is able to pilfer encrypted data can’t easily read it.

Encryption was already a rising trend, even before the spy scandal. Major security breaches have shown that computer networks are not safe from intruders. Last year, hackers stole millions of credit card numbers from Target and Neiman Marcus after finding clever ways to gain access to their systems.

“Today’s networks are like Swiss cheese. It’s very easy to get in, move laterally, and exfiltrate data,” says ­Dmitri A­lperovitch, cofounder of the security firm CrowdStrike. “People are using tools from the 1990s to do it.”

Encrypting data, like customers’ credit card information, is an additional line of defense. But encrypting stored data (as opposed to data in transit) turns out to pose a difficult puzzle. Encrypting the data protects it but also makes it difficult to search or process—rendering it less useful.

Encryption also takes up computer time, the main reason Web companies like Yahoo didn’t always use it before. But Internet firms realize they must now take extraordinary steps in response to extraordinary new threats.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

These exclusive satellite images show that Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway

Weirdly, any recent work on The Line doesn’t show up on Google Maps. But we got the images anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.