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Dark Mail Alliance co-founder: Intel agencies and Western militaries among our customers

The new ‘Dark Mail Alliance’ project being developed by Lavabit and Silent Circle to thwart online surveillance and “bring privacy back” is on track to become a success – even government, military, and intelligence agencies have shown interest.

“We’ve received a lot of interest from government as customers,” Philip Zimmermann, president and co-founder of global encryption firm Silent Circle told RT.

Silent Circle and another encrypted communications firm, Lavabit, shut down in August - just two months after Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA and its PRISM program, which collects vast quantities of metadata on personal emails around the world. Both companies opted to terminate their operations rather than grant the intelligence agency access to users’ accounts.

This week, however, the two companies announced they have joined forces as the first two members of what has been dubbed the ‘Dark Mail Alliance.’ Lavabit founder Ladar Levison and Silent Circle CEO Mike Janke said they are working on a new open-source tool that promises to offer end-to-end encryption capabilities for any email service.

They anticipate the service will be available by the second quarter of 2014.

RT spoke with Philip Zimmermann, who provided his insight into the future of encryption technology.

RT:Silent Circle and Lavabit are the first two members of the 'Dark Mail Alliance'. What exactly do you want to achieve, and why such a sinister name? 

Philip Zimmermann: Actually, I was against the sinister name. It would be better to pick something a little lighter. What we are trying to do is restore the privacy that we feel that has been lost by pervasive surveillance. E-mail is intercepted by intelligence agencies all around the world. And we’ve discovered through Snowden’s revelations that our own government is spying on its own citizens, which turned all Americans into foreigners, as if we were intelligence targets. 

RT:We've heard a lot of outrage from heavyweight e-mail providers – like Google or Yahoo – over the NSA's spying. Do you believe they may eventually join your movement [encrypted e-mail], your initiative?  

PZ: We hope that our protocol will be widely accepted. We think it restores a lot of privacy that we used to enjoy in our private conversations and that we can bring that to email. But I don’t think that they are going to immediately embrace this. There is still a lot of inertia in the old protocols for email. So, it’ll be a gradual process.  

RT:You want to make all email surveillance-proof. Is that even possible?  

PZ: We can’t make everything surveillance-proof, but what we can do is try to reduce the amount of exposure of email meta-data – that’s the data that says who it’s [the email] from, who it's to, the date and time. Many years ago, I developed encryption software for email, called PGP, and that encrypted the contents of the email, but it did nothing to protect the mail headers that say who it’s from and who it’s to. These days, the metadata and the mail header are really important for being able to survey a society and see who is talking to who[m].  

RT:Have you experienced any sort of obstacles to your plans from the authorities?  

PZ: Well, so far, what we’ve been doing at Silent Circle is to offer encrypted phone calls and encrypted short text messages. And we’ve received a lot of interest from government as customers. For example, the FBI came to our office a few months ago and I thought they were there to try to put pressure on us, but instead they were there to ask about pricing. We sell to US military, we sell to a few intelligence agencies, to the British military, the Canadian military. So we actually get a lot of government customers that respect what we do and like what we do. So it’s a positive relationship for the most part.  

RT:Is there any danger that criminals and terrorists could use this service and get their plans past the authorities? 

PZ: Yes, there is a danger of that, and it worries me a great deal. It has always worried me throughout the years I worked in this field. With PGP 20 years ago, I was worried about it and bad guys do use it. But I can’t think of a way, and other cryptographers feel this way too, we don’t know how to make this technology available to the entire population without it also being available to criminals and terrorists and all kinds of bad guys. But think about how they use other technologies. The 9/11 hijackers purchased GPS receivers to guide their airplanes to their targets. What are we supposed to do about that? Are we supposed to stop selling GPS receivers because Al-Qaeda might use it? It’s the same with many technologies.