When the Prism data mining project of the US National Security Agency was exposed by Edward Snowden in June, the technology press predicted a privacy boom in IT and communications. Ironically, the very first privacy brand name quoted in a Slashdot article was Silent Circle, which silently, unilaterally shut down its encrypted Silent Mail service last week. It committed pre-emptive sepukku to avoid being served with a notice requiring it to divulge user data to the government. It was one of three popular privacy services which winked out in quick succession. Only one, Tormail, was uncomfortably close to criminal activity.
Privacy, which was looking up so nicely, is suddenly a high risk industry. The first service to shut down was Lavabit, whose owner Ladar Levison chose to “walk away from 10 years of hard work” rather than “become complicit in crimes against the American people”, according to an open letter to his 4.1 lakh users. Levison explained that under national security legislation, he is restricted even from talking about the legal arm-twisting he has suffered. Lavabit’s closure grabbed media attention nevertheless because many journalists had received mail from one firstname.lastname@example.org, then marooned in Sheremetyevo Airport, Moscow.
That was on August 8, and Lavabit is probably the first technology company ever to close a service to block government access to private data. The next day, Silent Circle closed its encrypted mail service, retaining only peer-to-peer text, audio and video services which use encryption keys stored on client computers. The host cannot be forced to decrypt those conversations for lack of keys. CEO Michael Janke revealed that the US government was interested in high-value clients.
The third popular service to vanish was Tormail, and it was read as part of a pattern. It was. At the same time, it wasn’t. But the apparent hat-trick highlighted an uncomfortable contrast. Giants like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo could be coerced into surrendering user data to government, whereas small technology firms were willing to shut down rather than comply.
However, the erasure of Tormail differs from other cases of forced digital disappearance in an important respect: