The truth about why Silent Circle silenced their secure email service

David Gewirtz interviews Silent Circle CEO Michael Janke to discover the inside story about why one of the most respected secure communications providers killed their encrypted email service in light of NSA surveillance concerns.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

On Friday, I wrote Are small-fry encrypted email ISPs using feds as excuse for closure? The discussion was about secure email providers Lavabit and Silent Circle shuttering their secure email services.

"[He] was prosecuted by the U.S. government in the 90s and won. That's how the world has encryption now."
—Janke, of Zimmerman

Not a lot of you agreed with me that companies need to work with the government for the benefit of security. However, Michael Janke, CEO of Silent Circle reached out to me saying, "I liked your article and the questions you raise are different than most coverage I have seen. I would like to answer some of your in depth questions if you are interested."

I was, and he did. At the end of this article is the complete, unedited video interview with Michael. Before you watch that fascinating 34-minute piece, I'd like to share with you some of the highlights. First, the statement that resonated most with me:

About the right of privacy: "Whether you're in Tibet, Toledo, or Tunisia, [it is] the natural born right of every citizen to have a private conversation, to share a private picture or document; we feel is an innate right of the world."

Shuttering the email service

We talked at length about the reasons the company shut down their private email service.

About Silent Circle: "We're a mixture of some of the worlds' top cryptographers and security people from around the world."

Why they killed their email encryption service: "We knew that metadata was just as dangerous as email content regardless of if the contents of an email are encrypted. Who, when, where, why, the message header, your ISP, what operating system you're using, geolocating, and who you're communicating with are all very dangerous bits of data to retain."

About keeping up with growth: "Silent Mail was a stopgap measure... Unfortunately, we got a little too big, a little too popular around the world and the amount of users rose so fast that we had to shutter it before we were able to find a replacement."

About unexpected factors: "We understood inherently the dangers going into it, but we thought we had a little more time," and "We were literally sitting on a treasure trove of data that was highly valuable to many, many nations and intelligence agencies of the world. We made the pre-emptive decision to just scorched-earth it."

About future email products: "Our team has been working on a true peer-to-peer email app that looks, feels, acts like normal email, but it's not."

Why secure peer-to-peer is safe from governments: "We built our architecture -- legally -- so that we did not log IP addresses, we don't have metadata." They say the only information they have on customers (other than Slient Mail) is a user name, a phone number Silent Circle assigns, and password.

Why their other services aren't being shut down: "All our other products are peer-to-peer encrypted. There are no keys on a server. There is no metadata we collect," and "Anything is subjects to whatever governments want to do, however there's nothing for them to get (talking about the peer-to-peer stuff). You can't turn anything over if you don't have anything to give."

Global privacy concerns

We took the conversation to a more global level. First, here's an amazing (and pretty much true) claim about Silent Circle co-founder Phil Zimmerman, creator of PGP: "[He] was prosecuted by the U.S. government in the 90s and won. That's how the world has encryption now." I wouldn't say it's the only reason there is encryption, but Phil's fight was instrumental in making it available to users worldwide.

About government surveillance: "It's not just a US problem. It's a global issue," and "Most countries around the world, the minute you turn your phone on, you are being logged, tracked, recorded, collected."

About a bigger picture than PRISM: "I want to stress, a lot of press has been around PRISM and what happens here in the United States, but this is a global phenomenon. it is not relegated to our shores. This happens in Europe, South America, the Balkans, Asia, on a daily basis. Companies with equipment, people, and data in those countries done with secret courts and gag orders."

About American practices vs. other nations: "In some countries, it's not as nice as it is here," and "Unfortunately, that's most of the world. And unfortunately, they don't have near the amount of freedoms and luxuries and First and Fourth Amendment rights that we hold dear in North America and Europe."

About the NSA: "We understand and want the NSA to protect our citizens. But that conversation has to also take into account the freedom of speech, the privacy rights of indiviuduals, and the rights of companies to protect their intellectual property."

Now, watch the interview, complete and uncut. It will be well worth your 34 minutes:

Disclosure: It turns out I went to engineering school with one of Silent Circle's lead engineers. I didn't know that before I wrote Friday's article.

Thanks to my ZDNet colleagues Ed Bott, Zack Whittaker, Larry Seltzer, Denise Amrich, and Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols who helped me prepare for this interview.

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