Creating secure ecosystems for communications

The Prism scandal has boosted awareness of vulnerability, says Mike Janke of Silent Circle

Recent events surrounding the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) interception and monitoring of email and phone data under the Prism programme have given greater visibility to companies that specialise in providing secure and encrypted communications. 

Silent Circle, founded by Phil Zimmerman, who developed the Pretty Good Privacy data encryption program, one of the most widely used email encryption systems, is one such organisation. CEO and co-founder Mike Janke says the company was expanding at a rate of 100 per cent month-on-month before the Prism scandal broke in June 2013, but it is now growing 400 per cent as “awareness of the level of surveillance has grown”. 

The Washington DC company provides ‘encryption as a service’ on a subscription basis for phone, video, and text services (known as Silent Phone, Text and Eyes), and also provided an email version of the flagship Silent system until last summer, when it closed the service over fears it could not guarantee user data protection. A company blog post stated that the decision to close was made because “email that uses standard internet protocols cannot have the same security guarantees as real-time communications”.

It has since gone on to launch several solutions including a secure email service known as Dark Mail Alliance, in partnership with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s alleged email provider, Lavabit, as well as a secure handset named Blackphone, designed to enable encrypted communications, private browsing and file-sharing. It has also released its Silent Text messaging and file transfer application.

“We want to remain an independent company, and that is reflected in everything we do including the way we offer our services – we make a point of not retaining any metadata from phone conversations at all, for example, and do not store passwords or usernames either,” Janke explains. “Silent Circle has also always self-funded for that reason: we want to have the ability to create and innovate the way we want and could not do so properly by relying on external financing.”

Silent Circle, launched in the autumn of 2012, has an international customer base, with just over a third of its clients in its home US market. It also has a majority of private sector customers – 38 per cent are enterprises (including a number of Fortune 500 companies) and 41 per cent are private individuals. It has launched a US-only secure mobile contract comprising 3,000 minutes of airtime for the latter. 

The rest are government sector users including special operations forces from nine countries, intelligence agencies and government departments such as Norway’s Department of Forestry.

“Government clients tend to buy in bulk so we have also launched a management portal to deal with demand from that sector,” says Janke.

Silent Circle is planning to introduce more products and features in the coming months, such as group messaging, file transfer and tele-conferencing, as well as file storage and hardware capabilities. 

All would continue to use the peer-to-peer encryption protocol developed by Zimmerman that relies on the exchange of a shared encryption key during a VoIP telephone call to ensure the security of the conversation. 

Janke concludes: “We want to create an ecosystem of Silent products and software. Something that is important for us is the ability to be brand-agnostic – we’re not wed to Apple, IBM or Google.”