Civil Liberties

Easier Communications Encryption Challenges Snoopy Governments


Tin can telephone
A really, really old Swedish drawing

The other day, in my piece on Defense Distributed's success with a 3D-printed rifle receiver that stood up to hundreds of rounds (and, yes, I realize that I've been neglectful of CNC gunsmithing, which accomplishes much better results than 3D printing, though with not quite the same promise of gee-whiz ease), I discussed the development in the context of evolving technologies holding out enormous potential for protecting and expanding liberty, even in defiance of restrictive laws. Specifically, I called out communications privacy, which is all the more important now that the Supreme Court has made challenges to much government snooping dependent on first being able to prove that you've been snooped upon. Lo and behold, I write, and a new encrypted email service beckons on the horizon, offered by an entrepreneur who explicitly wants to stick it to governments in general, and the U.S. government in particular.

Encrypted email, especially in the form of PGP, has been around since the 1990s, but it's been something of a specialized taste for those with some technical savvy. I used PGP back when Eudora was my email client of choice, but I've found it to be a bitch to install on Thunderbird. Frankly, the average email user, no matter how concerned about privacy, stops right about the time the OpenPGP add-on complains that GnuPG can't be found. Huh? Thanks for the ease of use!

But Kim Dotcom of MegaUpload fame has stepped in to fill the gap. Facing prosecution for his old cloud storage service, Dotcom has not only battled extradition to the United States from New Zealand, he has started Mega, a new encrypted cloud storage service. And what better to go with your encrypted cloud storage than an encrypted means of discussing what you keep in there? Says Dotcom of his new email service, "we're going to extend this to secure email which is fully encrypted so that you won't have to worry that a government or internet service provider will be looking at your email."

Unfortunately, the eccentric German entrepreneur lost his latest battle against extradition when a Kiwi court ruled that he's not entitled to see American evidence against him. The fate of his encrypted email service may be a little … uncertain if he disappears into the tender embrace of the U.S. criminal justice system.

Interestingly, Dotcom announced his new offering via  Skype hookup. The popular video and audio communications service was once considered a pretty secure means of communication. Rumors have circulated for years, though that Skype cooperates with governments to allow surveillance. Now that the company is owned by Microsoft, it's arguably vulnerable to the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act  and the FBI's "Going Dark" initiative to gain access to pretty much any exchange of information within its reach.

Fortunately, alternatives exist for both voice and video communications over the Internet — some of them free and open source. Wikipedia keeps a nice running comprison of the various offerings and their attributes. Jitsi tends to get a lot of buzz, not least for its price (free!) and security features, which in an open source offering, can be scrutinized for FBI-friendly adulterations.

Not so free, but worthy of mention because it's apparently keeping secret policemen awake at night, is Silent Circle. Founded by a former Navy SEAL, and including PGP-creator Phil Zimmerman, Silent Circle was bound to generate interest, and it's done just that. The service is reportedly designed in such a way that the company has no access to communications that would it allow it to comply with any court order. Still, Silent Circle is under pressure to make more of its source code available so the public has a better idea of what it's paying for. Journalists and human rights activists are already adopting the service for its security and ability to "burn" sensitive information once it's transferred so that no trace is left.

Governments around the world have made it clear that they want legal access to our emails, phone calls, photographs and data. The world is responding in the right way — by putting all of that sensitive information beyond the reach of the state.