A prominent supplier of secure communications services has decided to shutter its e-mail service to avoid having to turn over confidential customer information to the government. The move comes hours after another e-mail service provider called Lavabit made the same decision in order to avoid becoming "complicit in crimes against the American people" — likely a reference to government surveillance.
Silent Circle offers a suite of secure communications tools, including e-mail, chat, and voice calling to customers in 126 countries. The chat and voice services employ "end-to-end" encryption, which means that the company itself does not have the capability to unscramble customers' communications and turn them over to the government. But e-mail services need to interoperate with other e-mail providers. That makes end-to-end encryption impractical and creates a danger that the company could be compelled to hand over information to the government.
For Silent Circle, that was a major concern because Silent Circle's business is based on promising absolute confidentiality to its clients. "There are some very high profile, highly targeted groups of people" among the firm's customers, says Silent Circle CEO Mike Janke. "We felt we were going to be targeted, without a doubt."
"We see the writing the wall, and we have decided that it is best for us to shut down Silent Mail now," the company wrote in a Thursday blog post. "We have not received subpoenas, warrants, security letters, or anything else by any government, and this is why we are acting now."
Silent Circle's other communications products, including voice and chat, will continue operating as usual. On those services, "there's nothing we could turn over" to the government, Janke says. Because the company doesn't collect information about its customers communications, "there's nothing we could ever be forced anywhere by any country to do."
Jannke says his firm has been growing rapidly in the two months since Edward Snowden revealed the extent of government surveillance. He doesn't expect the closure of the e-mail service to hamper the firm's growth. "We're on track to have between 2 million and 3 million users by the end of this year," he says.
The closure of the two e-mail services will provide ammunition to those who argue that aggressive spying is jeopardizing America's leading position in the international market for online services. One recent estimate suggested that U.S. companies could lose as much as $35 billion as fears of NSA surveillance lead foreign companies to cancel their contracts with U.S. cloud service providers.