Hiding Your Calls and Texts from Big Brother
The recent news reports that the US government can pull whatever data it wants from the internet and has free rein to peek at your phone records might have been shocking initially, but really they just underscored something already known (or at least assumed) by lots of people—we’re being watched pretty much all the time. Thanks to all the technology we casually use every day, everyone from corporations to government intelligence agencies to petty criminals have the opportunity to snoop through our stuff on a level that would have been unimaginable just a couple of decades ago. There are some measures you can take to hide from the NSA, but one of the most aggressive ways to guard your data is using the products available from Silent Circle, a tech start-up that sells software that encrypts calls, texts, emails, and files. The company, which has been around since last year, employs well-known cryptography experts like Jon Callas and Phil Zimmermann, the creator of the widely used PGP email encryption program, and they also own servers in Canada and Switzerland, where the laws are more privacy-friendly than those of the US. Even if they did open their servers to law enforcement or other government agencies, they say, there’s little to find there—the keys to decipher their customers’ encrypted calls and messages are generated on the users’ own devices and automatically deleted shortly afterward.
Obviously, a company providing a way for individuals—and potentially criminals—to communicate in secret might worry law-enforcement agencies. But Silent Circle isn’t worried about that, and they say that they abide by the laws while giving people an edge over data-gathering busybodies. I recently chatted on the phone with CEO Mike Janke and CTO Jon Callas about the right to privacy, what I got wrong in a previous article, and why even the FBI is buying their products.
VICE: Surveillance is in the news because of the NSA stuff. But obviously, the government isn’t the only one monitoring people and collecting information. What are some common non-NSA threats to people’s privacy?
Jon Callas: The first obvious one is the Chinese government, who do an awful lot of spying, particularly on people who do business. Then there is the usual gang of identity-stealing criminals usually based in Eastern Europe. And there are a lot of cases when, if you’re in business, there are specific people who might engage in espionage against you. There are a lot of industries where the companies spy on each other all the time.
Mike Janke: For the average citizen, it’s not just about the threat of criminal hackers. Many other countries in the world have organizations similar to our NSA with very similar mandates, and many of those operate without the same type of oversight the US has, if you want to call it oversight. Also, how do you feel from a personal privacy perspective that your texts, the websites you shop on, the calls you make—whether it’s to an illicit lover or for a business deal—the pictures you share, and the documents you send are being collected, collated, repackaged, and sold as data? Where is your version of privacy and what do you use to reign [surveillance] in?
Do you think that this is a moral question? Do we have a fundamental right to keep our communications private?
Jon: Absolutely. In my view, in Silent Circle’s view, every person in this world, regardless of their station in life or religion, should expect a level of basic human privacy. And many of the people on the internet have no understanding on what level they are giving that up.