Within hours of each other on Thursday, two major email encryption services -- reportedly used by National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden -- shuttered themselves, sending shudders down spines of online privacy advocates everywhere. The two encryption services, Lavabit and Silent Circle, both reportedly shut themselves down in order to avoid government scrutiny and pressure to hand over user information.
As CNET noted, "Lavabit, an encrypted e-mail service linked to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, hinted at a U.S. government investigation as the reason for its closure." Similarly, Silent Circle explained its decision to close in a post, explaining that the company seeks to avoid jeopardizing its clients' privacy should the government break down the door:
We have not received subpoenas, warrants, security letters, or anything else by any government, and this is why we are acting now," the company explained in its post. We'd considered phasing the service out, continuing service for existing customers, and a variety of other things up until today. It is always better to be safe than sorry, and with your safety we decided that the worst decision is always no decision.
In the same week that both the FBI and the NSA were fingered for launching a malicious software attack on the Tor network, which allows Internet users to make anonymous the I.P. addresses connected to their online activity, the defenses against totalized surveillance have been served a series of serious blows.
In this regard, Silent Circle's decision is a particularly tragic one -- an emblematic tale of how government surveillance has beaten down defenders of online privacy and open data. The company's founder, Phil Zimmerman, the creator of Pretty Good Privacy, was investigated by the government in the mid-'90s over regulations pertaining to the export of cryptography software. Zimmerman successfully fought off government prosecution after a three-year battle -- a major victory for online encryption efforts.
Now, with Lavabit and Silent Circle throwing in the towel, cryptographic fortunes have reversed: Two major encryption sites used by Snowden to pass information about the NSA's secret and vast spy dragnets have gone almost so far as to say they cannot withstand government scrutiny. As the fragile defenses of online privacy crumble, these are troubled times indeed for whistle-blowers, journalists and anyone who cares about the ability to share information without fear of government or corporate surveillance.