August 9, 2013
Yesterday, the encrypted email service Lavabit announced it would shut down rather than comply with any court orders that would result from the conclusion of a secret legal battle it’s been fighting for six weeks. Now, Silent Circle, a company that offers encrypted phone, video, and text services, has announced it will shut down its email service in a preemptive move to avoid being compelled by the US government to hand over user data.
In a blog post, Silent Circle’s Jon Callas wrote that the company has initially debated whether to offer an email service at all, because unlike Silent Circle’s other products, email is much harder to secure. But because of customer demand, the company decided it would offer email with the caveat that it might not be totally secure.
The company has since thought better of the decision (emphasis mine):
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.
Callas wrote that the company had been “debating this for weeks,” and it appears that the Lavabit news was the last straw. In both cases, the government’s increasingly instrusive access to personal data—just today, the New York Times poked yet another hole in the bullshit claim that the NSA only scans metadata, not content, without court orders—was enough to convince the companies that they could no longer offer their services as advertised.
What’s worrisome is that we’re beginning to see the chilling effects of government surveillance that we’ve all been worried about for some time now. First it was with whistleblowers—following aggressive pursuit and prosecution of B. Manning and others, as well as Edward Snowden’s current stint in political purgatory, how many potential whistleblowers will now think twice?
But now we’re talking about private, legitimate companies shutting down their services, not because of government regulation or anything open to debate or public discourse, but because of government intrusion and secret strong arming backed by the word of secret courts.
This is the US government’s attack on privacy taken to its logical conclusion. Add in the FBI’s compromising of Tormail, and we’ve lost three (perhaps not so) secure email services inside of a week. These types of services are valuable because they’re easy for the average privacy-minded person to use. When are more going to fall?
That’s the end game of the government’s attacks on privacy. Government agencies, supported by judges who don’t think privacy is a right, want to dismantle every barrier to privacy that Americans have, all in the name of fighting terrorism or crime. The internet is the main target right now, and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the US government can access an enormous amount of what we do online.
What happens if and when its online access is effectively complete? You can’t even expect to move through public anymore without your movements being warrantlessly scanned and tracked. And as we move into a post-privacy society, what does the government plan to do with all of that data? Unfortunately, we don’t know, because it won’t tell us.