Can anyone send an email that’s safe from the National Security Agency’s prying eyes?
In the immediate aftermath of reports that the NSA actually scans practically every email in the world—even if it’s an American one, though President Obama has repeatedly said there’s no domestic surveillance program—three major email encryption services have shut their doors.
“Right now, there are no good options, only compromises,” Eva Galperin, Global Policy Analyst at the EFF, told the Daily Dot.
The first was Lavabit, the preferred service of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, whose leaks started the recent conversation about NSA spy programs in the first place. Lavabit’s owner, Ladar Levison, left the site with a sad, slightly cryptic letter implying that the U.S. government was insisting he turn over certain information about his users’ communications. He didn’t give specifics, but said, “I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision. I cannot.”
That’s standard operating procedure, by the way. Those sorts of court demands, called Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court orders, come with the legal obligation that whoever gets them is legally bound to keep quiet. That’s the reason major American Internet companies like Google and Yahoo said they never spoke up about getting orders, likely related to the NSA’s PRISM program, to turn over their users’ files.
But it’s not just Lavabit. Tor Mail, a supposedly anonymous email service operated under the Tor anonymous browsing umbrella, has ceased as well.
On Monday, Silent Circle, a company that prides itself on offering a host of fully secure communications options, ceased its email service. Nodding to LavaBit’s decision to shut down, Silent Circle said on its website it was best to quit before it had to violates their customers’ privacy:
We see the writing on the wall, and we have decided that it is best for us to shut down Silent Mail. We have not received subpoenas, warrants, security letters, or anything else by any government, and this is why we are acting now.
— Jacob Appelbaum (@ioerror) August 8, 2013
So for now, it’s not really clear what you can do if you want your emails to completely avoid spying eyes. We’d suggest snail mail, but that’s been compromised too.
Illustration by Fernando Alfonso III