If you use encryption products to protect your data or communications, you owe a debt of gratitude to Phil Zimmermann. Now, Zimmermann is aiming to collect on that debt with his new company, Silent Circle, a startup that will provide secure phone, email and SMS communications.

Zimmermann has been down this road before, with a previous attempt at encrypted voice communications, the Zfone Project. Silent Circle’s apps will rely on the same ZRTP encryption protocol that Zfone used, but the scope of what the new company is trying to achieve is somewhat different. Like his original PGP email encryption product, Silent Circle is designed to give individuals and smaller groups the ability to communicate over encrypted links without the worry of government-installed backdoors or eavesdropping.

Zimmermann has a long history in this field and knows the perils and pitfalls that lie ahead. In the 1990s, he, along with a small group of other engineers, cryptographers and privacy advocates, fought the good fight against government attempts to prevent the export of encryption software and the insertion of government backdoors in those applications to enable easy decryption of sensitive communications.

After uploading his software to the Internet and making it available for free, Zimmermann had the shadow of prosecution hanging over him for several years. The U.S. government eventually backed down and Zimmermann was able to start a company based on his PGP email-encryption software in 1997 and later sold it. In the intervening 15 years, as Zimmermann has gone through a variety of incarnations as a consultant and advisor, the volume and scale of government eavesdropping and other forms of surveillance has grown exponentially.

That is troubling, but it’s also an opportunity for Zimmermann and his new company.

“The overall temperature of surveillance that you see emerging all over the world, including here in the U.S., it’s becoming worse and worse,” Zimmermann said in a video on the Silent Circle site. “We have to push back against this panopticon of surveillance.”

The beta release of the Silent Circle application will be an app for iPhones and Android phones that will encrypt voice communications between two parties using the company’s proprietary network. There also will be desktop versions of the software and the ability to protect email and IM conversations.

The beta release is set for next month. 

There have been other attempts to build secure text and voice systems for mobile phones, including the Whisper Systems apps developed by Moxie Marlinspike. RedPhone and TextSecure from that company work on Android phones to provide encrypted calls and SMS messages. Whisper Systems was acquired by Twitter last year.

Categories: Cryptography, Privacy