It sounds like a movie plot: Several of the world's top encryption experts secretly develop a technology that lets anyone avoid being tracked. Text messages, emails and files self-destruct after being sent.
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When the cryptographers unveil their invention, they send governments and intelligence services into a frenzy. What if the bad guys use it?
That's pretty much the way things have been going for Silent Circle, which was founded only a year ago. The U.S. company's apps for smartphones let users encrypt their phone conversations, text messages and even file transfers in a way that's considered impossible to track.
Even the people at Silent Circle, many of them with tech experience in the military, can't track their own data, and tracking is an activity that earns companies like Facebook and Google billions of dollars a year.
"We really, really, really don't have the keys [to crack the code]," says Phil Zimmermann, the company's president and co-founder. "We went out our way to make sure we wouldn't have them."
Zimmermann is considered a father of the Internet and the man responsible for your ability to encrypt information in emails. He says a big problem is "the massive wave of invasive tracking everywhere around the world. In China, tracking methods are so sophisticated that there is no [political] opposition because activists can't get organized. Britain is full of cameras. Some of these things can't be solved using encryption. It's impossible to encrypt our faces, but some things can be encrypted, and this is my way of doing something. This is what I know how to do."
The new app is worrying the authorities because if the government can't monitor everything, it can't know what's hiding in the shadows.
Remember the outrage last month when it turned out the FBI had treated Occupy Wall Street as a terrorist threat and tracked its activists? Or when in Israel it was discovered that the police followed the Facebook accounts of leaders of the social protest?
All a government agent needs to do is enter through the back door; back door is the term for a breach that gains access to your messages and files.
An ideology as much as a business
Zimmermann, 58, has decades of experience in encryption technology. In 1991 he developed PGP (Pretty Good Privacy), a popular encryption software program for emails. The U.S. government then opened an investigation against Zimmermann, claiming that PGP violated U.S. laws controlling weapons exports.
According to U.S. law at the time, encryption programs were considered weapons and Zimmermann had exported his service without authorization. He was thus considered to have aided criminals and terrorists. But the investigation never turned up anything of substance, and in 1996 the government took its sights off Zimmermann.
In 1995, Newsweek chose Zimmermann as one the 50 most influential people on the Internet. Later, PC World magazine listed him as one of the 50 leading technological visionaries of the past 50 years.
Silent Circle, Zimmermann says, is an ideological creation. It's a business, but one that has clear red lines. "We will never, ever install a back door," Zimmermann says.
A back door would enable the app's creators to get their hands on people's confidential information. This has become the focus of the argument surrounding Silent Circle. Intelligence agencies are trying to force the company to install back doors in its software to prevent terrorists from using the app to transmit encrypted messages.
But terrorists and criminals will indeed use this service, Zimmermann says. "But that's how it is with every technology; eventually, even the bad guys use it. In the '30s Bonnie and Clyde robbed banks and quickly drove away in cars to flee the police," he says.
"It stunned the cops; they had never seen robbers use cars so efficiently to flee them. So would this have made it necessary to prevent people from buying cars?"
Even Satan couldn't eavesdrop
Silent Circle's encryption method is based on peer-to-peer networking. This means it enables users on either end of a conversation, text message or file to choose the encryption key.
In other words, if you want to conduct a secure phone conversation, you and your interlocutor must agree beforehand on a code. Silent Circle won't know the code and has no way to find out. The company doesn't store the data anywhere. This is what Zimmermann means when he says the company "doesn't have the keys."
If you're still suspicious, you can use the app's "Burn Notice" option and specify when exactly the message will self-destruct after being read. "Satan himself could be running servers and no one would be able to eavesdrop," says Zimmermann.
Silent Circle has four services. Silent Phone allows secure phone conversations. Silent Text allows secure text messages. Silent Eyes allows secure video chats. And Silent Email, a new app, allows users to send files up to 500 megabytes large via encryption. They self-destruct based on the time limit specified.
Tech blogs like Engadget and magazines like Slate have lauded Silent Circle for democratizing what had been the province of experts: serious data encryption. Of course, the service doesn't come cheap; privacy nuts have to pay $20 per month. And journalists aren't always on the company's side.
"I've spoken recently with many journalists, and journalists love to depict Silent Circle as a step toward defiance. But I don't feel that way," says Zimmerman.
"I don't think that's what we're doing; we're helping people who need protection – protection from organized crime, protection from being tracked by dictatorial governments, protection from the involvement of other entities, business or otherwise, that want to harm them. We truly and simply want to protect data, that's all."