How Dark Mail Plans to Build an Open, Secure Email Platform

The new Dark Mail Alliance formed this week by Lavabit and Silent Circle will offer an open platform for secure email that will use existing protocols and cloud storage as a way to evade surveillance. The new system, which should be available next year, is in some ways a throwback to the pre-Internet days, officials involved in the project said.

The new Dark Mail Alliance formed this week by Lavabit and Silent Circle will offer an open platform for secure email that will use existing protocols and cloud storage as a way to evade surveillance. The new system, which should be available next year, is in some ways a throwback to the pre-Internet days, officials involved in the project said.

The Dark Mail project is a response to the current surveillance climate, one that caused both Lavabit and Silent Circle to close down their previous secure email offerings. Lavabit, which is reportedly the service that NSA leaker Edward Snowden used, shut down its service rather than comply with a request from the FBI for its encryption keys. Seeing the writing on the wall, Silent Circle decided to ceases its own Silent Mail service preemptively soon thereafter.

In the weeks following those closures in August, engineers from Silent Circle began talking with Lavabit founder Ladar Levison and soon hit on the idea of building a new, Web-based secure email platform that would be resistant to surveillance and backdoors. The idea, said Jon Callas, co-founder of Silent Circle, involves sending a short routing message to the intended recipient of the email over a protocol such as XMPP. That message will have a link to a cloud storage location where the user can pick up the actual email. That email will be encrypted and and the key to decrypt it will be included in the routing message.

“It separates the routing and addressing from the actual content of the email,” Callas said. “It makes it so an email, which could be anything from ten characters to a few megabytes, doesn’t have to be pushed all the way down the line and transferred from server to server and make sure everything is safe.”

Callas, a cryptographer and former co-founder of PGP Corp., another secure email provider, said that in some respects, the Dark Mail idea is relying on concepts from the dawn of the Internet age.

“This resembles in a lot of ways things that were done in the pre-Internet days. SMTP has served us well for many years, but it was not designed to be secure at all,” Callas said. “That means there’s all sorts of metadata that can’t be encrypted and sticks around forever. That data ought to be in a log somewhere, not in the email. It’s really trivial for people to pick it up and do metadata analysis on it.

“This is going forward into the past. We want to go back to using things that were used on LANs and update it using crypto. This is going to be an open offering for the Internet. Why not just open it up for everybody? We all decide that it’s better for the world to have an open, non-SMTP way to do email and those of us who are in the email business can offer whatever services we want on that infrastructure. Email was originally done with no security at all and we’ve been dialing it up ever since. Why not start over with high levels of security and let people dial it down if they want?”

Callas said that he hopes the new offering will be available sometime in 2014, but much of that depends on the amount of help the Dark Mail Alliance gets from the rest of the community.

“We view this as, if it’s successful, it will be tweaked by people in various ways, because I don’t expect that our ideas on how to do this are perfect,” Callas said. “I don’t think we’ve solved every problem there is.”

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