Lavabit, Silent Circle shut down e-mail: What alternatives are left?

Privacy- and security-focused Web services have seen some extra time in the spotlight since The Washington Post and The Guardian first broke their stories about government surveillance.

Not all of that attention, however, has been good.

As my colleague Andrea Peterson wrote, the Lavabit e-mail service used by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden announced Thursday that it would shut down, implying heavily that it had received some sort of government request for information. Hours later, my colleague Timothy Lee reported that another firm, Silent Circle, said it would preemptively shut down its Silent Mail service to avoid ending up in the same position.

That could leave those looking for alternatives to wider commercial services such as Gmail, Outlook or Yahoo Mail in a bit of a lurch. There are alternatives out there. PRISM-Break.org suggests Autistici/Inventati, invitation-only Riseup, and Swiss-based, paid account service MyKolab as alternatives for people looking to secure their e-mail accounts. The group also has recommendations for e-mail clients that you can use on your computer, including Mozilla Thunderbird, which has an optional add-on for encrypting mail.

(For other tips finding and using privacy- and security- focused services of all stripes, check out this list, which Lee put up in the days following the first reports of the NSA surveillance programs.)

There have already been concerns that the existence of these surveillance programs may hurt U.S. businesses, particularly cloud providers. In fact, European Union Vice President Neelie Kroes said the programs could have “multibillion-euro consequences” for American firms.

But while these closures probably don’t mean that much to the average consumers — who probably were not going to head to these specialized services for their everyday e-mail needs anyway — they are raising some concerns. Silent Circle said specifically that it hadn’t actually received any “subpoenas, warrants, security letters, or anything else by any government” before shutting down, which leads to the troubling conclusion that the threat of action alone was enough to take an option off the market.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.

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