Privacy Matters! Deutsche Telekom, WEB.DE and GMX Launch 'E-mail made in Germany' Initiative

By Peter Bernstein August 12, 2013

For those of us who live on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean, while I will not call it xenophobia, our tendency is to have cultural blindness. In the tech field, as we are finding out, this can have huge consequences. Such has been the case of the growing ripple effects of the still-smoldering NSA scandal initiated several weeks ago by leaker and now U.S. ex-patriot Edward Snowden.

Just last week saw one group trying to quantify (with what some say is faulty logic and numbers) what it estimated as up to $50 billion that might be at risk to U.S. Internet Service Providers (ISPs), if they did not comply with Europe’s stricter statutes. Plus, tech executives met with President Obama to express their concerns on a variety of subjects, and privacy was at the top of the agenda.

The fact is that Europeans in general take privacy matters very seriously. And, Germans in particular, who have personal and institutional memories of the abuses of the Nazi regime engaged in prior to and during World War II, are extremely wary. They abhor when governments, be it their own or those of other countries, are looking at their personal information. 

Image via Shutterstock

Indeed, for a short period of time, it looked like German Chancellor Merkel could have election troubles if she did not take a strong stance on privacy protection. However, apparently her outrage and swift urging for stronger European-wide data protection laws as the scandal started to unfold and it was revealed that the NSA was eavesdropping on EU and German officials appears to have helped her avoid any damage.         

Well, not only German politicians, but none other than Deutsche Telekom and partner United Internet have also decided to make lemonade out of lemons. They have launched an initiative for secure e-mail communication across Germany. The partners' "E-mail made in Germany" program utilizes an additional security standard that, for the very first time, enables GMX, T-Online and WEB.DE users to automatically encrypt data over all transmission paths and offers peace of mind that data are handled in compliance with German data privacy laws.

As outlined in the materials revealing the initiative, data is encrypted directly by the provider. The reason is so that customers will have to do little or nothing for the value-added. In fact, for the moment, this will be done at no extra cost. What they get for peace of mind in return is:

  • All data will be securely stored in German data centers.
  • A special designation allows users to see before dispatching their e-mail which of the recipients selected also use secure e-mail addresses and thus comply with the initiative's security standards.

Starting last week, e-mail communication between data centers at GMX, T-Online and WEB.DE are being sent encrypted.

The way all of this works is described as follows. Transmission from the handset to the e-mail server is encrypted for all customers who use an e-mail application from one of the partners or who have activated SSL encryption in their e-mail program (e.g., Outlook). It is also noted that, “for security reasons, from the beginning of 2014 the initiative partners will only transport SSL-encrypted e-mails to ensure that data traffic over all of their transmission paths is secure.”

"Germans are deeply unsettled by the latest reports on the potential interception of communication data. Our initiative is designed to counteract this concern and make e-mail communication throughout Germany more secure in general. Protection of the private sphere is a valuable commodity," said René Obermann, CEO of Deutsche Telekom AG.

"Together, we have a strong customer basis, which means the initiative offers secure communication for two-thirds of all e-mail users in Germany. 'E-mail made in Germany' is open to other providers who commit to the standards set out by our initiative. Alongside e-mail encryption and the designation of secure e-mail addresses, a third key element relates to data processing and archiving, which is carried out in Germany. This ensures that Germany's stringent data privacy laws are complied with," said Ralph Dommermuth, CEO of United Internet AG.

In addition to offering technical peace of mind, "E-mail made in Germany" will help give an idea of where communication over encrypted transmission paths takes place. From now on, in the GMX, and WEB.DE e-mail applications secure addresses that comply with the "E-mail made in Germany" standards will be marked with a security seal.

Is this an overreaction? From a U.S. perspective, this might appear to be so. However, the more that comes out about the breadth and depth, and technical sophistication, of what NSA has been doing with the stamp of what approval of the FISA court, the more European politicians and commercial entities are going to not just howl but also look toward competitive advantage.

The estimates about how much the scandal and a tightening of developed world laws on privacy could have on the future of clod computing, as noted above, already had U.S. tech companies looking for government assurances and help. However, with Google already under the EU microscope for antitrust matters involving search and Android (ironically with Microsoft leading the charge as part of an anti-Google coalition), and U.S.-based ISPs aiding and abetting the NSA in its overseas snooping, Deutsche Telekom and friends wisely have seized the moment. Certainly altruism is part of this because of the deep-seated cultural abhorrence of Big Brotherism, which my friends in Europe tell me is deeply engrained across the continent. It also happens to be good business.

As I have mentioned in many previous articles, trust is hard to establish, easily lost and difficult to reestablish. With e-mail still the lingua franca of business, having more trustworthy e-mail is likely to emerge as a necessity going forward. How fast Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and other large e-mail providers react and go the same route, both overseas and in the U.S., is going to be one of the big things to keep an eye on for the rest of the year.

Edited by Alisen Downey
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