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.

Silent Circle logo.
Silent Circle logo.

Courtesy Silent Circle.

Lately, Mike Janke has been getting what he calls the “hairy eyeball” from international government agencies. The 44-year-old former Navy SEAL commando, together with two of the world’s most renowned cryptographers, was always bound to ruffle some high-level feathers with his new project—a surveillance-resistant communications platform that makes complex encryption so simple your grandma can use it.

Ryan Gallagher Ryan Gallagher

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

This week, after more than two years of preparation, the finished product has hit the market. Named Silent Circle, it is in essence a series of applications that can be used on a mobile device to encrypt communications—text messages, plus voice and video calls. Currently, apps for the iPhone and iPad are available, with versions for Windows, Galaxy, Nexus, and Android in the works. An email service is also soon scheduled to launch.

The encryption is peer to peer, which means that Silent Circle doesn’t centrally hold a key that can be used to decrypt people’s messages or phone calls. Each phone generates a unique key every time a call is made, then deletes it straight after the call finishes. When sending text messages or images, there is even a “burn” function, which allows you to set a time limit on anything you send to another Silent Circle user—a bit like how “this tape will self destruct” goes down in Mission: Impossible, but without the smoke or fire.

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Silent Circle began as an idea Janke had after spending 12 years working for the U.S. military and later as a security contractor. When traveling overseas, he realized that there was no easy-to-use, trustworthy encrypted communications provider available to keep in touch with family back home. Cellphone calls, text messages, and emails sent over the likes of Hotmail and Gmail can just be “pulled right out of the air,” according to Janke, and he didn’t think the few commercial services offering encryption—like Skype and Hushmail—were secure enough. He was also made uneasy by reports about increased government snooping on communications. “It offended what I thought were my God-given rights—to be able to have a free conversation,” Janke says. “And so I began on this quest to find something to solve it.”

Janke assembled what he calls an “all-star team”: Phil Zimmerman, a recent inductee to the Internet’s Hall of Fame, who in 1991 invented PGP encryption, still considered the standard for email security. Jon Callas, the man behind Apple’s whole-disk encryption (which is used to secure hard drives in Macs across the world), became Silent Circle’s chief technology officer. Other employees were top engineers and ex-special-forces communications experts based in England, Latvia, and Germany. Together, they designed their own software, created a new encryption protocol called SCimp, registered their company offshore and outside U.S. jurisdiction, then built up their own network in Canada. (They eventually plan to expand to Switzerland and Hong Kong.)

Though many encryption options already exist, they are often difficult to use, which is a barrier for those without the skills, patience, or time to learn. Silent Circle helps remove these hurdles. As a result, organizations that have a real need for secure communications but have maybe not understood how to implement them are coming forward and expressing interest in Silent Circle.

Janke says he’s already sold the technology worldwide to nine news outlets, presumably keen to help protect their journalists’ and sources’ safety through encryption. (ProPublica, for one, confirmed it’s had “preliminary discussions” with Silent Circle.) A major multinational company has already ordered 18,000 subscriptions for its staff, and a couple of A-list actors, including one Oscar winner, have been testing the beta version. The basic secure phone service plan will cost $20 a month per person, though Janke says a number of human rights groups and NGOs will be provided with the service for free.

The company has also attracted attention from 23 special operations units, intelligence agencies, and law enforcement departments in nine countries that are interested in using Silent Circle to protect the communications of their own employees—particularly on the personal devices that they use at home or bring to work. Some of these same agencies, perhaps unsurprisingly, have contacted Janke and his team with concerns about how the technology might be used by bad guys. Because Silent Circle is available to just about anyone, Janke accepts there is a real risk that a minority of users could abuse it for criminal purposes. But he argues you could say the same thing about baseball bats and says if the company is ever made aware someone is using the application for “bad illegal things”—he cites an example of a terrorist plotting a bomb attack—it reserves the right to shut off that person’s service and will do so “in seven seconds.”

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.

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.