Filed under: First Amendment Issues
Encryption App Silent Circle Shuts Down E-Mail Service ‘To Prevent Spying’
by Parmy Olson
August 9, 2013
Updated with comments from co-founder Phil Zimmermann
The business of protecting consumers from prying government eyes has suddenly become a pre-emptive one for Silent Circle. The communications encryption firm said Friday that it was shutting down its e-mail service to prevent spying, a day after competitor Lavabit suspended its core email service. Lavabit’s founder had suggested in a letter to customers that he had been the subject of a U.S. government investigation and gag order.
Silent Circle, which has seen a 400% revenue jump in recent months as a result of the Snowden furore and concerns over government surveillance, does not rely solely on e-mail hosting as Lavabit does. It also encrypts phone calls, text messages and video conferencing with a suite of iOS and Android apps.
Only a small portion of its customers used Silent Mail, some of whom used it as their exclusive email provider — at some point in the last 24 hours, many discovered their cloud-based emails had been suddenly deleted.
“We copied out our employee email to another disc drive, and then erased the disc drive containing every thing else,” explained co-founder Phil Zimmermann. “I heard a lot of customer service phones ringing this morning… I hope they respect our judgment. I’m sure it’s painful. But we thought it would be a good idea to do it quickly. ”
Co-founder and CTO Jon Callas said in a blog post Friday that Silent Circle’s e-mail service had “always been something of a quandary for us.” Zimmermann is well known in cyber-security circles for inventing the popular e-mail encryption software PGP, but even he says the software “doesn’t run very well well on a Mac these days.” He added that Symantec, the information security company that bought PGP Corporation in 2010, “hasn’t kept that up.”
“I’ve felt very comfortable talking to people about our architecture – the fact that we don’t have the [encryption] keys,” Zimmermann said. “And every time we would talk about that there was always that caveat: ‘Except for the mail.’ I didn’t like that caveat.”
The problem was that electronic mail uses standard internet protocols that cannot have the same security guarantees that real-time communication has, Callas said. “Email as we know it with SMTP, POP3, and IMAP cannot be secure.”
Since many of its customers wanted an email service, Silent Circle offered it anyway with full disclosure of the risks. “However, we have reconsidered this position,” Callas said.
“We’ve been thinking about this for some time, whether it was a good idea at all. Yesterday, another secure email provider, Lavabit, shut down their system lest they ‘be complicit in crimes against the American people.’ We see the writing on the wall, and we have decided that it is best for us to shut down Silent Mail.”
Last month it came to light that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden had probably used the Lavabit email service after an observer at his recent Moscow airport briefing posted the email address email@example.com on Facebook FB -0.26%. Lavabit’s founder, Ladar Levinson, said Thursday that he would suspend operations at his his e-mail hosting company rather than “become complicit in crimes against the American people.” He added that he was legally prevented from talking about the events that had led to his decision.
Callas said Silent Circle had not received subpoenas, warrants or anything other similar request from any government. The company had been debating what to do about its email service for weeks, and up until Friday was ready to phase the service out so that it would continue for existing customers. “It is always better to be safe than sorry,” Callas said.