Faced with the prospect of being forced to turn over metadata from their customers’ private correspondence to secret courts in the U.S. or other countries, two prominent secure e-mail services decided this week to cease operation.
The secure email service Lavabit – lately the choice of NSA leaker Edward Snowden – announced that it was ceasing operations on Thursday after ten years of operation. The announcement was followed, on Friday, by a similar one from the security firm Silent Circle, which operated Silent Mail. Both companies cited the difficulty of securing e-mail communications and the prospect of secret government subpoenas to obtain information on the activities of their customers as the reason for deciding to stop offering secure email services.
In a message posted on the Lavabit.com web site, owner and operator Ladar Levison said that he was being forced to “become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit.” He chose the latter, saying that he was prevented from fully discussing the circumstances leading to his decision what may be an oblique reference to a National Security Letter, the Constitutionally murky U.S. government demand letters that prohibit the recipient from discussing the receipt of the letter or its contents.
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Lavabit has long been recognized as a secure, anonymous email provider. However, it came to prominence after being linked with former Booze Allen Hamilton employee and NSA consultant Edward Snowden, who acknowledged leaking more than 10,000 pages of classified documents to the reporter Glen Greenwald. Snowden took advantage of an encrypted e-mail service offered by Lavabit that requires the user’s account password to decrypt and read e-mail correspondence stored on Lavabit’s servers.
The exact content of the subpoena served to Levison isn’t known, but Mike Janke, the CEO of the firm Silent Circle, told The Security Ledger that his company had been mulling a shut down of its own Silent Email service even before news of the Lavabit subpoena broke.
Silent Circle’s customer base has grown 400% in the last 70 days and counts leading politicians, businesspeople, government agencies, royalty and celebrities as customers, Janke said. Furthermore, only 35% of Silent Circle’s customer base is based in North America. “We quickly realized that (Silent Email) had become literally a treasure trove of some of the world’s most prized communications. We were saying ‘it’s only a matter of days, not weeks, before someone comes in.”
And, unlike the company’s secure, peer-to-peer voice, texting and video services, e-mail communications couldn’t be totally shielded from prying eyes, Janke said.
“E-mail is fundamentally flawed,” he said. “Lavabit and Silent Circle were the most secure that e-mail can get. But, because of the way e-mail is set up, there’s still a tremendous amount of metadata that is exposed – the IP address, location and time of communications. That information is very valuable to governments, which can track and monitor it.”
|Listen to Paul’s June interview with Mike Janke of Silent Circle here:|
Accordingly, Silent Circle executives decided to pull the plug on the service, erasing all of its customers e-mail data without warning and then notifying them. “It was just way too dangerous to allow that metadata to exist,” Janke said. While he would not give exact numbers, Janke said that around half of Silent Circle’s customers used the Silent Mail feature – most of them individual, rather than institutional users. In all there may have been a million or more e-mail accounts erased in the purge.
Janke said fewer than five percent of customers who contacted the firm were angered at the sudden shut down and that the company is working with them to explain its decision.
Despite the focus on Snowden and the U.S. government’s PRISM program, Janke said Silent Circle, which is headquartered off shore, with servers in Canada and Switzerland, doesn’t consider the U.S. any more or less a threat than other governments, including those in Europe. “It’s not just the US government. We have eight countries who are customers,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time before the U.S. or a country that’s friends with US says ‘send a national security letter to subpoena Silent Circle’ – it could be France, India, or any country that shares intelligence with the US or has a channel to the US government.
While the company wouldn’t be compelled to comply with a National Security Letter if it received one, Janke wasn’t optimistic that it could hold off for long if the U.S. or another government had its heart set on trawling through Silent Email messages. “They can put a gag order on you so you can’t legally talk about what’s going on. And we have employees in German, South Africa, Australia, the UK and Canada,” he said. “These nations can detain you or find a way to come in. I don’t know of anybody who has beaten a government,” he said.
In an interview in July, Janke told The Security Ledger that his company’s business was booming in the wake of revelations about PRISM, the NSA’s program of wholesale domestic surveillance. Silent Circle’s Peer to Peer based communications network for voice, text and video do not retain information beyond the user’s account ID, password and Silent Circle phone number. Therefore, the company cannot be forced to turn over sensitive communications to the government, Janke said.
In the wake of the shutdown of both Lavabit and Silent Mail, Janke advised users not to migrate to another supposedly “secure” email service. Rather, they should limit email use to non-sensitive communications and find other, more secure alternatives to transmit sensitive information. For its part, Silent Circle said it will soon release a peer-to-peer based messaging alternative that leverages it secure text engine and that could be a secure replacement for email communications, Janke said.