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Automatic email encryption

August 9, 2013

Two of Germany’s biggest internet companies have announced plans to make their email services more secure. This comes amid the controversy about the snooping practices of the US National Security Agency.

Rene Obermann and Ralph Dommermuth at the press conference in Berlin. Photo: Stephanie Pilick/dpa
PK Sichere E-MailImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Deutsche Telekom AG and United Internet AG announced on Friday that they were joining forces in a project dubbed “E-Mail Made in Germany,” which would see all emails sent from the T-Online, GMX or Web.de services automatically encrypted.

The head of Deutsche Telekom, Rene Obermann (pictured left) told reporters at a press conference in Berlin that the two companies had agreed to enhance email security, due to customers' concerns in light of the US National Security Agency (NSA) snooping scandal.

"Germans are deeply unsettled by the latest reports on the potential interception of communication data," Obermann said, referring to revelations made by former NSA subcontractor Edward Snowden.

He added that German customers should be able to “bank on the fact that their personal data online is as secure as it possibly can be.”

Under the new system, the contents, attachments and metadata of the emails are to be encrypted while in transit between the sender and receiver. The data is to be available in an unencrypted state on the companies' servers but any access to third parties, such as prosecutors, is to be granted only in compliance with German law.

This, United Internet boss Ralph Dommermuth (pictured right) told the same press conference, meant that it would be impossible for any “foreign jurisdictions” to gain access.

Initially, the encryption rules are only to apply to emails sent between the addresses from T-Online, GMX or Web.de, but the two companies claim that these account for about 50 million or two thirds of the primary email addresses in Germany.

The move was widely praised in Germany, with Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich saying automatically encrypting the emails would “make it more difficult for unauthorized [people or agencies] to gain access.”

Friday's announcement comes at a time when an increasing number of Germans say they have lost faith in the trustworthiness of internet providers. A recent survey by Bitkom, the Federal Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media, found that more than half of the population has either less trust or completely lost trust in the industry.

Lavabit closes

A contributing factor to this loss of trust have been allegations that US-based companies such as Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Microsoft have collaborated with the NSA, something each has strongly denied.

The German service providers' initiative came just hours after the owner of the US-based encrypted email service believed to have been used by Edward Snowden, announced that he was shutting it down.

In a statement posted on the website of the Texas-based company Lavabit, Ladar Levison hinted that he had done so as a result of pressure from US authorities, but said he had been barred from actually saying what had led to his decision.

"This experience has taught me one very important lesson: without congressional action or a strong judicial precedent, I would strongly recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States," the statement said.

pfd/dr (dpa, Reuters, AFP, AP)