Phil Zimmerman, who is the creator of the PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption algorithm and the head of Silent Circle, the other encrypted global communication company that shut down along with Lavabit, has explained in an open letter why he took this action. He says that unlike the other services that his company provides for phone, video, and text services, where his company retains no data that it can be forced to provide to third parties and is thus secure from end-to-end, the nature of email is such that he could not provide that level of guarantee.
Because they have not received any demands from the government yet, he can speak openly. He says he shut his email service Silent Mail down pre-emptively and destroyed its archives rather than being forced to accede or be silent about the government’s secret demands that he felt were inevitably coming.
We designed our phone, video, and text services (Silent Phone and Silent Text) to be completely end-to-end secure with all cryptography done on the clients and our exposure to your data to be nil. The reasons are obvious — the less of your information we have, the better it is for you and for us.
Silent Mail has thus always been something of a quandary for us. Email that uses standard Internet protocols cannot have the same security guarantees that real-time communications has.
Silent Mail has similar security guarantees to other secure email systems, and with full disclosure, we thought it would be valuable.
However, we have reconsidered this position. We’ve been thinking about this for some time, whether it was a good idea at all. Today, another secure email provider, Lavabit, shut down their system lest they “be complicit in crimes against the American people.” We see the writing the wall, and we have decided that it is best for us to shut down Silent Mail now. We have not received subpoenas, warrants, security letters, or anything else by any government, and this is why we are acting now.
President Obama had a press conference today. USA Today has a live blog. It looks like he did his usual song-and-dance about these surveillance measures being purely to fight terrorism and has promised some reforms but they seem to be mostly cosmetic and I doubt that anything significant will happen. Obama has long ceased to have any credibility on civil liberties. This is just to give his supporters something they can use to defend him.
Jason Ditz reports that Obama was testy during the press conference. It must be really galling for an authoritarian like him to be forced to defend himself because a young person whom he and the government-media-military establishment considered to be a nobody had the courage to decide that people need to know what their government is snooping on them in secret.