[I]n some cases GCHQ and the NSA appear to have taken a more aggressive and controversial route—on at least one occasion bypassing the need to approach Google directly by performing a man-in-the-middle attack to impersonate Google security certificates. One document published by Fantastico, apparently taken from an NSA presentation that also contains some GCHQ slides, describes “how the attack was done” to apparently snoop on SSL traffic. The document illustrates with a diagram how one of the agencies appears to have hacked into a target’s Internet router and covertly redirected targeted Google traffic using a fake security certificate so it could intercept the information in unencrypted format.
Documents from GCHQ’s “network exploitation” unit show that it operates a program called “FLYING PIG” that was started up in response to an increasing use of SSL encryption by email providers like Yahoo, Google, and Hotmail. The FLYING PIG system appears to allow it to identify information related to use of the anonymity browser Tor (it has the option to query “Tor events”) and also allows spies to collect information about specific SSL encryption certificates.
GCHQ, for those who don’t know, is the British equivalent of the NSA.
So much for Google’s security measures. Forced SSL may deter petty man-in-the-middle attacks from amateur hackers, but it doesn’t shield anyone from the likes of the NSA.
This isn’t to say that SSL is useless and shouldn’t be used. HTTPS is better than HTTP. But if Google was serious about security and protecting its users, it would make Gmail like Hushmail, offering the ability to encrypt entire user accounts and encrypt messages. There are enough Gmail users that offering encryption by default would have an immediate and huge effect on email security.
But, of course, if Google were to offer such encryption, it would no longer be able to read its users’ emails and place targeted ads within Gmail. Messages would be scrambled and unreadable by Google’s algorithms. So Google is never going to do what Hushmail does. It would interfere with their ability to offer “free” Gmail.