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Your email is safe with us - in Germany

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy October 14, 2013
An alliance of three German providers promises better email security but what message does it send to the outside world? MOre to the point, can it take hold in the rest of Europe? I doubt it.

made in DE
In a pre-NSA world, Germany often looked like an oddity with stringent privacy laws that prevented (most) data leaving its sovereign territory. Today? Maybe not so much.

According to Der Spiegel:

Freenet, a listed telecommunications provider known for its strong anonymity protection, has seen an 80 percent increase in new users over the last three weeks. German web hosting company 1&1, meanwhile -- parent company to email providers GMX and -- has seen a six-figure increase in new joiners over the same period.

T-Online, a business unit of Deutsche Telekom and the biggest internet service provider in Germany, would not confirm their exact number of new joiners, but also pointed to a "stronger interest" in its email service. It remains unclear how many of the new users have set up email accounts in addition to existing ones, and how many have actually cancelled accounts with US providers such as Yahoo or Google.

So a mixed and fuzzy bag. But then Deutsche Telekom also announced a new service with the predictable tag line: "Email Made in Germany."

...the program includes new security measures making sure that email travelling between three of its email services -- T-Online, GMX and -- never leave local servers. The provider's emails are now encrypted, and users are notified when they are composing an email to a recipient whose address does not fall under the program's protections.

Sounds pretty secure huh? But then influential bodies in Germany are taking the NSA issue one step further.  Thilo Weichert, head of the Independent Center for Data Protection argues that:

"The moment that the data is in the US, it will definitely be used by the NSA, and subsequently by other government agencies including the CIA, FBI and the DEA," he told news agency dpa in an interview. "If I use Google-Mail, it's pretty certain that my data will be saved on American servers, and can then be accessed by the NSA."

There are two things going on here:

  1. "...[your data] will definitely be used by the NSA"
  2. "If I use Google-Mail, it's pretty certain...can then be accessed by the NSA."

Which is it? No one can be certain although there is sufficient of a fog over the topic to create the kind of fear upon which eager vendors clamor to feed. But is this a potential panacea? Not so fast. One commenter notes:

While it is a good idea to push these brands, only one of them - T-online - allows people anywhere in the world to register. Both and gmx only offer this service for Germany, Austria and Switzerland. GMX offers for others but it does not come with the same privacy guarantees. If they want to take advantage of people's concerns about US providers they need to make their products available globally and provide English language service.

And there you have it in a nutshell. While I have no problem with German providers capitalzing on the fog surrounding the NSA revelations. it worries me that a continuation of the 'not invented here' syndrome that permeates much of what happens in Germany will only serve to polarize opinion and make it more rather than less difficult for non-US individuals and enterprises to make informed choices about how well their data is protected.

Tom Raftery, analyst with Greenmonk believes that 'Every European country should be doing this.' Its an entertaining point but given for example the fact that the UK's GCHQ has been heavily implicated in using similar spying tactics, it is hard to imagine how such a concerted approach will take root.

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