By Ryan Gallagher
Email might be on the verge of a radical makeover. And the NSA is not going to like it.
On Wednesday, two American companies with a track record of offering encrypted private communications are set to join forces in an unprecedented bid to counter dragnet Internet spying. Some of the world’s top cryptographers are behind the secure communications provider Silent Circle, and they’ve teamed up with the founder of Lavabit, the email provider used by Edward Snowden, which recently shut down in a bid to resist surveillance. They’re calling it the “Dark Mail Alliance.” For months, the team has been quietly working on rebuilding email as we know it—and they claim to have had a breakthrough.
The newly developed technology has been designed to look just like ordinary email, with an interface that includes all the usual folders—inbox, sent mail, and drafts. But where it differs is that it will automatically deploy peer-to-peer encryption, so that users of the Dark Mail technology will be able to communicate securely. The encryption, based on a Silent Circle instant messaging protocol called SCIMP, will apply to both content and metadata of the message and attachments. And the secret keys generated to encrypt the communications will be ephemeral, meaning they are deleted after each exchange of messages.
For the NSA and similar surveillance agencies across the world, it will sound like a nightmare. The technology will thwart attempts to sift emails directly from Internet cables as part of so-called “upstream” collection programs and limit the ability to collect messages directly from Internet companies through court orders. Covertly monitoring encrypted Dark Mail emails would likely have to be done by deploying Trojan spyware on a targeted individual’s computer. If every email provider in the world adopted this technology for all their users, it would render dragnet interception of email messages and email metadata virtually impossible.
Existing forms of email encryption, like PGP, can be used to encrypt the content of an email. But PGP cannot encrypt the “subject” header or metadata like the “to” and “from” fields, and the average user can find it too complicated to use. Dark Mail promises to address both of these issues in the form of an easy-to-use iOS app and an Android app. There will also be desktop versions for Mac and Windows users. People using the technology will still be able to send emails to friends or colleagues using Gmail and Hotmail—but when sending messages to non-Dark Mail users, a warning will be displayed, making it clear that the communication could be intercepted.
Silent Circle and Lavabit don’t plan to offer the technology exclusively. On the contrary, the source code of the software will be made public for anyone to scrutinize and audit, and the team is hoping that other email providers will be willing to join the Dark Mail Alliance. The more companies that do, the more secure email will become.
“Our vision is three or four years from now that this will become email 3.0—the way the majority of Internet users email,” says Mike Janke, Silent Circle’s CEO. The 45-year-old, a former Navy SEAL sniper, acknowledges that the launch of the service is going to be “politically hot.” Major companies like Google and Microsoft may be unwilling to adopt it because of how controversial it could be, with governments potentially furious that the technology could thwart their attempts to monitor communications and track criminals. But surveillance has become “completely out of hand,” Janke says, and he believes it’s time to readdress the balance between security and privacy.