Encrypted email service Silent Circle silences email in wake of Lavabit closure

Filed Under: Featured, Privacy

Silent Circle - an encrypted e-mail service similar to Lavabit - says it "see[s] the writing on the wall" and has also shut down its email service.

Lavabit, a service used by whistleblower Edward Snowden that was using public key cryptography to keep messages private in spite of their being stored in the cloud, abruptly shut down on Thursday.

Lavabit said that a gag order kept it from giving details about the legal wrangling that caused it to close.

Founder Ladar Levison said in a statement that it had come down to a decision: either "become complicit in crimes against the American people" or "walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit."

Silent Circle, for its part, said it hasn't yet received subpoenas, warrants, security letters "or anything else by any government" - at least, not yet.

That's why it's acting now, the spy-proof communications provider said:

"We've been debating this for weeks, and had changes planned starting next Monday. We'd considered phasing the service out, continuing service for existing customers, and a variety of other things up until today.

It is always better to be safe than sorry, and with your safety we decided that in this case the worst decision is no decision."

"We apologize for any inconvenience, and hope you understand that if we dithered, it could be more inconvenient."

Silent Circle is not shutting down all its services, mind you - only Silent Mail.

The reason for the selective shutdown is that Silent Mail has "always been something of a quandary," the company said.

Email that uses standard Internet protocols - with SMTP, POP3, and IMAP - can't be secured end-to-end, as it has "far too many leaks of information and metadata" that's intrinsic to the email protocols.

But the email shutdown goes deeper than these issues.

In a statement given to TechCrunch, Silent Circle CEO Michael Janke said that the company's high-profile, at-risk users are simply bound to be targeted by governments:

"There are some very high profile people on Silent Circle - and I mean very targeted people - as well as heads of state, human rights groups, reporters, special operations units from many countries.

We wanted to be proactive because we knew USG [US Government] would come after us due to the sheer amount of people who use us - let alone the 'highly targeted high profile people'.

"They are completely secure and clean on Silent Phone, Silent Text and Silent Eyes, but email is broken because govt can force us to turn over what we have. So to protect everyone and to drive them to use the other three peer to peer products - we made the decision to do this before men on [sic] suits show up.

Now - they are completely shut down - nothing they can get from us or try and force from us - we literally have nothing anywhere."

Silent Circle's pre-emptive closure, on top of Lavabit's self-suspension, has bolstered critics who say that the survival of the technology sector is being threatened by the US government's uncontrollable hunger for surveillance.

Jennifer Granick, the Director of Civil Liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, wrote this of Lavabit's voluntary shutdown:

"The fact that neither Americans nor foreigners trust the U.S. government and its NSA anymore puts the U.S. communications companies at a severe competitive disadvantage. American law provides almost no protection for foreigners, who comprise a growing majority of any global company's customers.

And even though Americans receive more nominal legal protection, we now know that these legal protects haven't stopped the NSA from wiretaps fiber optic cables inside the United States, warrantlessly gathering Americans' emails and chats from service providers like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Apple, collecting phone records on every American for the past seven years, or demanding that companies build, or at least maintain, surveillance backdoors in products advertised as secure from eavesdropping."

Silent Circle is not closing down completely.

The company says that in contrast to its email, its phone, text and teleconferencing offerings - Silent Phone, Silent Text and Silent Eyes - are secured end to end.

The company doesn't have encrypted data and doesn't collect metadata from the conversations that take place through these venues, Silent Circle says, so those offerings will continue as they have, while the company continues to work on improving secure communications.

As for Lavabit, Levison says that the company has already begun to prepare paperwork so as to "fight for the Constitution in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals."

He says that a favorable decision would allow him to "resurrect Lavabit as an American company."

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5 Responses to Encrypted email service Silent Circle silences email in wake of Lavabit closure

  1. Spryte · 437 days ago

    "U.S. communications companies at a severe competitive disadvantage"

    and who will be next... U.S. software companies as wary consumers look for more secure software.

  2. Nicholas Flood · 436 days ago

    Its a terrible state of affair's, when such an amazing system gets trashed by people willing to exploit knowledge. The lines of which are blurred to the point of disbelief.

    National Security should not be used as an excuse to steal data.

    Their is a recoil effect taking place now. New systems and the like are being developed. The direction of which is to become closed minded and separate. Its a shame that the land of the free has become porous and as such has lost integrity.

    We preserver...

  3. John Beatty · 436 days ago

    What might be 'the other three peer to peer products' mentioned by Michael Janke Silent Circle's CEO?

  4. MD Fernandez · 435 days ago

    NSA is caught in a catch 22. They have a duty to protect innocent people from terrorist activity; so they listen in on conversations -and as a result, they are blamed for being irresponsible (and then some). Now, if a terrorist attack were to actually happen -they would be blamed for being irresponsible (and then some).

    It's lose-lose however you look at it. Honestly, I can understand both sides of the argument here. And there has been so much NSA complaining and criticism, that it has become part of the overall story now.

    What I have yet to hear is the answer to this question:

    How do you identify the bad guys in the first place, and then stay on top of what they are up to, without having access to communications information?

  5. Keith · 434 days ago

    MD Fernandez: "How do you identify the bad guys in the first place, and then stay on top of what they are up to, without having access to communications information?"

    Not by warrantless bulk sniffing of data. There is no evidence this is effective. It's simply not possible to trawl through petabytes of data and to identify "bad guys" without know in advance something about what you are looking for.

    If you do know what you are looking for, and if you have good reason for suspecting a terrorist attack is being planned, then you should have enough evidence to get a warrant.

    I'm not against warranted access as this requires reasonable cause. I'm also not against gagging orders on such warrants as long as they are real warrants, via due process, signed off by a judge, after reasonable cause has been established.

    Unrestricted access to this sort of data is very dangerous to citizens, and it allows Governments to extend their power and control over the populace, and to detect and quell any dissent, all behind closed doors. At the risk of invoking Godwin's Law, it is precisely this sort of Government surveillance, control, and lack of transparency that allowed the Nazi's to rise to power in Germany.

    Many American citizens are protesting against potential gun control laws, citing 2nd Amendment rights. What the NSA is a million times worse and more scary. Realistically the citizens are not going to arm themselves and rise up against the Government, but even if they could, any 2nd amendment rights are irrelevant when the Government is monitoring everyone so closely, and could spot and close down any dissent (labelling it as "terrorism") before it spread. Your 4th Amendment rights are being removed here, and that's far more fundamental and scary than gun control.

    And, bear in mind, whether you trust the current Government or not, the NSA is largely independent and autonomous. Even if you trust them now, you may not trust the next one, and by then it could be too late. If this sort of surveillance had been available in 1776, the Founding Fathers would have been arrested, branded "terrorists", and America would still be a British Territory.

    Also consider that, despite Government and police hype, "terrorism" really is a negligible problem in the US (and most of Western Europe). More people in the US die from diabetes every month, than have been killed or maimed in terrorist attacks in the last 20 years.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.