PGP inventor, Navy SEAL find surveillance niche in Silent Circle

Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post - Mike Janke, left, and Phil Zimmermann founded Silent Circle to encrypt phone calls and text messages so they can’t be intercepted.

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New disclosures about the National Security Agency’s surveillance efforts have given a boost to at least one Washington area company seeking to thwart prying eyes.

Silent Circle, a National Harbor-based start-up that encrypts phone calls and texts so that users don’t leave a trail, saw a jolt in business after news reports of the NSA’s initiative.

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Mike Janke, one of the founders, estimated that the number of new customers for its subscription-based service surged by 400 percent. The privately held firm declined to say how many customers it has.

“We’re working with businesses that previously had bought 25 subscriptions now purchasing 800,” he said. The company dropped its price to encourage more customers to sign up.

Silent Circle’s efforts are not necessarily at odds with the government. In fact, the government is also a customer, as it seeks to protect its own communications.

Janke is a former Navy SEAL who got interested in the technology as a way to let military personnel make calls from overseas without having their communications intercepted.

He left the military in 2000 and started a defense contracting business. In 2010, he went to government and contracting officials to find out whether they knew of existing technology that might do the job.

“I spent a year researching. I would come back to the tech people at the government, and I would say, ‘What about Skype?’ and they’d shake their heads no,” he recounted. “They’d say, ‘If you find something, let us know.’ ”

Janke then recalled using a program as a SEAL that encrypts e-mail called Pretty Good Privacy or PGP. He wondered if the inventor, Phil Zimmermann, might be able to help.

“I said, ‘I wonder if he’s still alive,’ ” Janke said.

Indeed he was, and the pair soon teamed with Jon Callas, an Apple alumnus, in 2011.

The Silent Circle technology relies partly on a protocol that Zimmermann developed years ago. To encypt the calls, Silent Circle assumes the role of service provider but keeps no record of the calls. The technology does not give the company access to unencrypted information or the software keys that would unlock it.

“When I designed it, I didn’t trust the phone company,” Zimmermann said. “I designed the protocol to not share anything with the phone company or the [voice-over Internet protocol] service provider, which is kind of like the phone company.”

Zimmermann and Janke say part of the key to Silent Circle’s success has been their partnership. While Zimmermann had carved out a reputation in encryption technology, Janke had the government connections to win over defense and intelligence agencies.

Although PGP was finally accepted by the government, “it took a very long time,” Zimmermann said. “With Mike as my partner, we’ve been able to get a lot of government customers right away.”

Still, there are times when Zimmermann is at odds with federal agencies. In a recent paper, for instance, he joined many academics in expressing concern about potential laws that might require Internet communications products to be built “wiretap-ready.”

The paper’s authors argued that software makers should not be required to build intercept capability into their products and that doing so “will be much more costly to personal, economic and governmental security overall than the risks associated with not being able to wiretap all communications.”

Janke said that when the company officially began operations in October it was ill prepared for the onslaught of business. Silent Circle moved three times in four months in search of sufficient office space and now has 62 employees. Janke said the company needs to be closer to 90 to support its endeavors and is rapidly hiring.

Silent Circle is adding new features and hoping to roll out a mobile device within the next year.

At 59, Zimmermann said he’s enjoying Silent Circle more than any previous venture. And he’s able to laugh about his career-long obsession with privacy.

“We’re really dedicated,” he said. “I was thinking of getting a T-shirt that says, ‘We’re OCD, so you don’t have to be.’ ”

 
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