November 6, 2013

Silent Circle and Lavabit’s “DarkMail Alliance”

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In the age of PRISM revelations, finding a truly secure email service can be a challenge. The recent news about government surveillance often makes us worried about the privacy of our personal information on the Internet. The NSA leaks have made us aware that almost all of us store our email with a third party service, and it can be intercepted during data transmission. Apart from that, there is also the possibility of the emails being hacked, or scanned by advertisers. Keeping such user privacy concerns in the forefront, two secure email service providers, Lavabit and Silent Circle have joined hands to launch a secure email system called “Dark Mail Alliance”. Both Silent Circle and Lavabit had shut down their encrypted email services in August in a bid to resist surveillance.

The companies presented their ideas at the Inbox love conference last week, saying that they hope to “change the world of email completely by putting privacy and security at its core.” Dark Mail would shield both contents of the email and it’s “metadata,” including “to” and “from” data, IP addresses and headers. It will use XMPP, a web messaging protocol, along with another secure protocol created by Silent Circle called SCIMP instead of  SMTP. Silent Circle CTO Jon Callas told that “it’s high time to boot the antiquated SMTP out the doorThis is just another transport – what we’re getting rid of is SMTP. We like to laugh at it, but there are reasons why it was a good system. We’re replacing the transport with a new transport. E-mail was designed 40 years ago when everybody on the Internet knew each other and were friends.”

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The private key used for encrypting the emails will not be stored on the server of the service provider, rather will be held on the user’s system and can be populated across all his devices. The public key and addresses will be in the public server. The emails will be encrypted and stored in the user’s system before being sent to the cloud. As a result the user data would not be compromised even if the government forces an SSL key to be turned over, as all the messages are encrypted using the key that is sitting on the user’s system. Dark mail will be available as an add on or an option to existing email providers – Gmail can use it if Google choose to participate.

The alliance is also planning on implementing other security measures to provide a robust and secure email service to the users. One idea is to implement a protocol that will keep a static public key for a few hours or days and then refresh it. Old email messages need to be encrypted using the new key to provide better protection for sensitive data. Another security feature that is under consideration is “forward secrecy” that limits the amount of data that can be decrypted if the private key is compromised.

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In comparison to existing forms of email encryption like PGP, Dark Mail will provide better security by encrypting the metadata along with the content of the email. PGP cannot encrypt the subject header, or metadata and the average user finds it very complicated to use. Dark mail plans to make its service extremely easy to use. “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”.

The source code of the software will be available in public for anyone to scrutinize or audit and the team is hoping more companies to join Dark Mail Alliance for better email security. The founder of Lavabit, Ladar Levison will soon launch a campaign to fundraise for the Dark Mail Alliance to open-source Lavabit’s code “with support for DarkMail built-in.” “The first 32 companies to donate $10,000 will get a pre-release 60 days before the public gets it so that those companies can integrate it into their systems first”.

The companies believe that in three or four years from now the Dark Mail service will be used by the majority of the Internet users. However companies like Microsoft and Google might be unwilling to adopt this technology, because use of such a technology would hinder the government’s surveillance attempt to monitor communications and track criminals. Silent Circle CEO Mike Janke says, “Surveillance has become “completely out of hand and he believes it’s time to readdress the balance between security and privacy”.

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  1. I wish to applaud the efforts by Silent Circle and Lavabit to create Dark Alliance – it is absolutely true as things are, all of our email can be easily intercepted – this is part of the reason I personally keep all of my email on my own computer so even if the company(s) who do my mail have a problem I still have my email.

    I am sure this endeavor will be successful and more and more companies will join Dark Alliance – it will be similar to what other companies did when the government tried to interfer with other freedoms on the internet – our ability to communicate knowing our email is safe, being read either by ourselves or our friend, family or business person who receives it is a very important right of being an internet citizen. I hope to hear more about this new project.