Can Gmail survive the cyberattacks era?

Email has had advantages, but its vulnerability means we may have to look for another tool

By Francisco Rodríguez

Lucky are the young ones, they’ve always had Google. Or at least something like it. Or better yet, something that actually works. Don’t get me wrong, there is much that the company produces that works well enough to use.

This past April Fools’ Day marked the 20th anniversary of Gmail, which launched in 2004 and was thought of as a prank by some internet users. At first use, it seemed like a database-writing helper piece of software. You could set an email status to “read” or “unread” and add labels to flag where your messages came from, and maybe where they were going. Initially, I thought for sure there would be a massive documentation file, a long HTML-formatted tome that rivaled lengthy entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. There were directions, yes, but Google simply invited you to use the software and try it on for size.

Over the past couple of decades, Gmail’s spam filter has defended me from some aspects of doom. Perusing the spam folder makes for some (somewhat) amusing reading. There are offers of outrageous fortune in return for a small investment to cover shipping and handling of important documents. These are supposedly left by a long-lost relative who entrusted a considerable sum of euros to a well-known investment firm in the old country. Then there are the not-so-thin-veiled threats from anonymous crusaders claiming to see my every online move. They threaten to have enough proof to ruin my family’s reputation if I don’t cough up $400 in the cybercoin of the day.

The recent ransomware attack on MGM Resorts that crippled their operations, shutting down everything from slot machines to digital room keys, illustrates the risks of relying solely on email for communication. Hackers were allegedly able to social engineer an MGM employee over the phone to gain access and deploy their malware. This incident highlights how email, while ubiquitous, lacks the end-to-end encryption and security features needed to protect sensitive conversations.

For the average person, the MGM breach is a wake-up call that alternatives to email are sorely needed. Secure messaging apps like Signal, with its open-source encryption, or even Telegram and Viber with their partial protections, offer a safer channel to connect with friends, family and colleagues digitally. While not bulletproof, these apps make it substantially harder for bad actors to eavesdrop on chats or use social engineering to compromise an entire organization’s communications. In an era of escalating cyber threats, switching to a secure messenger should be a priority.

Ransomware attacks have hit The Dallas area particularly hard in recent months. In April 2023, the city of Dallas itself fell victim to a Royal ransomware attack that exposed the personal data of over 30,000 people, mostly city employees and their families. The city has already allocated $8.5 million to recover from the incident. Just a few months later in October, Dallas County disclosed it was investigating another “cybersecurity incident” that forced them to take systems offline. With major employers like American Airlines and Southwest Airlines also suffering data breaches this year, it’s clear the North Texas region is a prime target for cybercriminals.

I frankly don’t recall what I used before Gmail. I know I must have had a Hotmail account (not Microsoft Hotmail, they hadn’t purchased the outfit yet) and definitely not AOL Mail (I probably had one of those but only so I could use AOL Instant Messenger). I may have been tied to a local-client solution like Eudora or some software like that. Actually no, I probably picked up the phone and called whoever I wanted to at any time I felt like and looked forward to not hearing an answering machine, but rather welcomed hearing an annoyed “hello” from whoever I called.

For all its faults, email has been a remarkably resilient tool. It’s survived the rise of social media, do-all apps and a countless list of challengers. It’s likely that whatever successor will need to adapt to, rather than wholly replace the existing email system. Then again, maybe the youngs have it right and the next, great TikTok replacement tool will at least bring a short respite to our online communication angst.

Francisco Rodríguez is a Computer Information Technology Faculty at a local college and a former Dallas Morning News and Al Día journalist

DMN Opinion

Written on April 16, 2024