Guest post: Government Gmail use following Google's China news

Paul Strassman outlines some of the technical issues raised for government agencies using Gmail in light of the China cyberattack on Google.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor on

Paul Strassmann is a Distinguished Professor of Information Sciences at George Mason University's Center for Secure Information Systems. He's also a long-time technology executive in the private sector and government. In 2002, he served as acting CIO of NASA. Here's his take on the Google-China showdown and some of the technical issues the incident raises.

Updated: A Google spokesman responds with the following: The premise of Mr. Strassmann's post is without merit:  There's no need to withdraw servers that store Gmail information from China because there aren't any there.

Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra has been a consistent advocate of increasing the government's use of commercially available technologies, such as Gmail. In fact, as the District of Columbia's chief technology officer, Kundra implemented Google Apps, including Gmail, for all District employees.

A number of Department of Defense (DoD) organizations are already using Gmail. Meanwhile, Google has made secure Gmail the default choice in light of the cyberattack the company detailed on Tuesday.

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Since there are DoD organizations that have already advocated the adoption of Gmail, the following advisory is offered.

The most probable, and easiest way, would be for Chinese agents with physical access to Google servers to insert physical wiretaps. A modified version of a Cisco switch with an extra optic fiber leading off to the police would be easy to hide.  It would be reasonable to assume that Google does not encrypt traffic sent between machines in the same subnet (i.e. in the same physical cabinet).

Once you can wiretap, you can eventually figure out how to distinguish Gmail traffic from other traffic, and reverse engineer how Gmail data is replicated across servers.

There is no defense against a hostile party with full physical access to your server room. That is why Google's only logical option is to withdraw all physical servers from China.

There are two Google data centers in China, almost surely co-hosted on shared facilities and not owned by Google. Similarly, there is a co-hosted facility in Russia. Unless a facility is owned and operated by Google it would be always suspect, and even then it would not qualify to operate DoD classified mail.

DoD should therefore not consider Gmail as a viable option because it cannot be trusted. Only a secure DoD Private Cloud, isolated from the Internet, can be seen as an acceptable option.

Ed note: Google said it doesn't have servers that hold Gmail data within China. Strassmann maintains his reservations about cloud applications within the DoD.

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