Encryption guru Phil Zimmermann returns with secure phone service
No back doors
Encryption guru and privacy campaigner Phil Zimmermann has quietly uncloaked a new startup, Silent Circle, which is reportedly working on encryption software and a secure gateway service for smartphones and email.
Details remain light at the moment, but the company is signing up users for a beta programme that promises to deliver a working Android and iPhone app by July.
Silent Circle (disambiguation: not the German euro-disco band) sounds like a service for anyone who wants security as a priority and who isn’t thrown by a price tag said to be $20 (£12.50) per month.
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A few years back that sort of cost would have made it a niche but perhaps no longer; encryption and security generally is now a higher value business and the users fretting about such things will pay for certainty.
“We have to push back against the panopticon of surveillance,” said Zimmermann in a promo video from the company’s website, which lists two ex-US Navy Seals among its launch team.
Not coincidentally, the single interview he has given on the sort of users who might be interested in such software mentioned military personnel serving abroad as a target market.
Zimmermann has form when it comes to working out how encryption can be used by mere mortals and not just governments.
Famously, he invented a program in the 1990s called Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) and started a tech war with the Clinton administration that now looks like a dress rehearsal for battles fought every day between citizens, various police forces and yes, if we’re honest, criminals too.
One side wants to hide its conversations, both good and ill, the other wiretapping tendency to unravel them. So far popular encryption has been winning the war using an inscrutable and usually unbreakable mathematics so the authorities have come up with new techniques such as computer eavesdropping to beat the odds, recording conversations before they are even encrypted.
Paradoxically, despite the maths smarts, very few people use encryption or at least realise they are when they it is being applied by networks. In Zimmermann’s view, encryption works best when it is personal.
Despite his PGP fame, Zimmermann’s career has been as defined by his fascination with phone and voice encryption in particular, starting with PGPfone in the 1990s and in 2005 with something called Zfone.
A sort of crypto plug-in for VoIP programs, Zfone gained some traction without quite catching on. Silent Circle’s app and service model could be Zimmermann’s acceptance that being successful with security means owning the whole application, not just part of it.
The fascination of encryption technology is that it never seems content to sink completely into the woodwork and new uses keep popping up, and so its restless, unpredictible evolution continues.
Silent Circle hints at yet another twist on that theme from the top-drawer encryption pioneer who just won’t give up.