Backdoor demands cause PGP founder to quit US

News by SC Staff

Phil Zimmermann, creator of the world's most widely used email encryption system - Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) - and founder of three-year-old mobile encryption startup Silent Circle, said during a talk in the UK this week that he is moving his company from the US to Switzerland.

The reasons cited were plans by the UK and US governments to further extend their surveillance capabilities and provide back-doors to encryption, with the Ladar Levison case in the US a catalyst. Levison was served with a court order in summer 2013 requiring the installation of surveillance equipment, and decided to close his email service rather than comply. 

"Every dystopian society has excessive surveillance, but now we see even western democracies like the US and England moving that way. [British society is] too accepting of surveillance," Zimmermann was reported by the Guardian newspaper as saying.

New proposed US  legislation would facilitate the collection and decryption of data from smartphones and "other communications devices",  while the UK is seeking to increase government surveillance powers via amendments to the Data Communications Bill, or Snooper's Charter, requiring businesses to retain key customer data, including online conversations and Facebook and Twitter activity, for 12 months.

Zimmermann noted: "Here [the UK] people have a comfortable relationship with their own government and maybe that's why they don't raise objection to it,"  but warned, "Future governments that come to power might not be so nice, and if they inherit a surveillance infrastructure then they could use this to create an incumbency that cannot be changed."

Zimmermann, who released PGP for free over the internet, was the subject of a three-year criminal investigation for alleged breaches of US export restrictions for cryptographic software. The Guardian quotes the user manual for PGP, written by Zimmermann in 1991 and updated seven years later, as predicting the type of mass surveillance operations subsequently revealed by Snowden, saying: “Today, email can be routinely and automatically scanned for interesting keywords, on a vast scale, without detection. This is like driftnet fishing.”

Ex-Navy Seal and Silent Circle chief executive Mike Janke urged firms to rethink their reliance on US-based IT services due to privacy concerns, during an interview with V3.

As SC reported earlier this month, a UK tech company building a peer to peer social network with strong user privacy,, said it would quit the country in the wake the Conservative party's election victory, saying in a blog post : "The ramifications of electing a Tory government make it impossible for us to carry out our mission of creating technology that protects human rights and resists mass surveillance while living in the UK." 

It also notes how David Cameron stated that “should he be re-elected, a Tory government would plan to block encrypted messaging applications … unless the government gets backdoor access to users.'


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