New "Surveillance-Proof" App To Secure Communications Has Governments Nervous

What's to come?
Oct. 16 2012 6:00 PM

New "Surveillance-Proof" App To Secure Communications Has Governments Nervous

Silent Circle promises to make encryption easy for everyone.

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The very features that make Silent Circle so valuable from a civil liberties and privacy standpoint make law enforcement nervous. Telecom firms in the United States, for instance, have been handing over huge troves of data to authorities under a blanket of secrecy and with very little oversight. Silent Circle is attempting to counter this culture by limiting the data it retains in the first place. It will store only the email address, 10-digit Silent Circle phone number, username, and password of each customer. It won’t retain metadata (such as times and dates calls are made using Silent Circle). Its IP server logs showing who is visiting the Silent Circle website are currently held for seven days, which Janke says the company plans to reduce to just 24 hours once the system is running smoothly.

Almost every base seems to have been covered. Biannually, the company will publish requests it gets from law enforcement in transparency reports, detailing the country of origin and the number of people the request encompassed. And any payment a person makes to Silent Circle will be processed through third-party provider Stripe, so even if authorities could get access to payment records, Janke says, “that in no way gives them access to the data, voice, and video the customer is sending-receiving ... nor does it tie the two together.” If authorities wanted to intercept the communications of a person using Silent Circle, it is likely they’d have to resort to deploying Trojan-style tools—infecting targeted devices with spyware to covertly record communications before they become encrypted.

Among security geeks and privacy advocates, however, there’s still far from consensus how secure Silent Circle actually is. Nadim Kobeissi, a Montreal-based security researcher and developer, took to his blog last week to pre-emptively accuse the company of “damaging the state of the cryptography community.” Kobeissi’s criticism was rooted in an assumption that Silent Circle would not be open source, a cornerstone of encrypted communication tools because it allows people to independently audit coding and make their own assessments of its safety (and to check for secret government backdoors). Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist at the ACLU's Speech Privacy and Technology Project, said he was excited to see a company like Silent Circle visibly competing on privacy and security but that he was waiting for it to go open source and be audited by independent security experts before he would feel comfortable using it for sensitive communications.

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When I asked Janke about this, he said he recognized the importance of the open-source principle. He says the company, contrary to Kobeissi’s assertion, will be using a noncommercial open-source license, which will allow developers to “do their own builds” of Silent Circle. “We will put it all out there for scrutiny, inspection, and audit by anyone and everyone,” he added.

Another factor is that a number of countries are pushing for new surveillance laws that will force many communications providers to build in backdoors for wiretapping. The Silent Circle team has been following these developments closely, and it seems to have played into the decision to register offshore and locate its multimillion-dollar network outside U.S. jurisdiction. Janke says he has consulted with Canada’s privacy commissioners and understands that the new push to upgrade surveillance capabilities in Canada will not affect the company because its technology is encrypted peer-to-peer (making it technically incapable of facilitating a wiretap request even if it receives one).

But what if, one day down the line, things change and Canada or another country where Silent Circle has servers tries to force them to build in a secret backdoor for spying? Janke has already thought about that—and his answer sums up the maverick ethos of his company.

“We won’t be held hostage,” he says, without a quiver of hesitation. “All of us would rather shut Silent Circle down than ever allow a backdoor or be bullied into an ‘or else’ position.”

In an age of ever-increasing surveillance, it’s a gutsy stance to take. Perhaps Big Brother has finally met its match.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

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