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Encrypted communications gives voice to dissidents

Information gathering by the National Security Agency – whether legal, extralegal or illegal – has dominated the news for the last two months, but it is worth noting that the United States is not the only government engaging in electronic eavesdropping.

Kaspersky Labs reported in August that the Chinese language version of the website of the Central Tibetan Administration, which represents the Dali Lama, had been corrupted, redirecting visitors to an exploit that installed a backdoor on visitors’ computers. Researchers assigned no blame for the hack, but the Dali Lama, who fled from China to India in 1959, is not looked upon with favor by the Chinese.

With issues such as this in mind, the encrypted communications company Silent Circle is reaching out to support dissident groups in Tibet and elsewhere with off-the-shelf technology that can evade Chinese or any other government surveillance.

The Human Rights Foundation announced Sept. 4 that Silent Circle has donated 200 subscriptions for its Silent Phone application to Tibetan groups that have run afoul of the Chinese government. The mobile applications and service subscriptions enable strong encryption for voice and video communications between iPhone and Android phones using the app.

This is its first such partnership to provide secure communications for whistleblowers, activists and dissidents, said Alex Gladstein of the HRF. “They [Silent Circle] are very interested in using the technology to do good,” he said. The foundation is advising on and facilitating the donations. “On our end of the partnership, we are selecting groups that need this sort of thing. This is just the first effort. We will be doing others.”

When the scheme for providing peer-to-peer encryption for mobile devices was first hatched by former Navy SEAL Mike Janke, his vision was to enable secure BYOD communications in the field for special operations personnel and for maybe a few journalists operating in dangerous areas. It turned out that the timing for such a service was right, with mobile devices having become powerful enough to handle the processing required and with privacy concerns coming to the fore for businessmen and consumers as well as the military and intelligence communities.

Spurred by the ability to do encryption and key management on user devices without leaving a trail of metadata on third-party servers, and with pricing beginning at less than $10 a month, the company now has a user base in the millions. Governments are among its earliest and largest customers, Janke said.

Much has been made of the fact that Silent Circle’s technology could make it impossible for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to listen in to calls or look at data, images and video being exchanged between secured phones (and despite reports that the National Security Agency may have found a way to break most encryption, this holds true everywhere else). But instead of pushback, U.S. military and intelligence agencies have been early adopters. In contrast to the 1990s, when the U.S. government tried to stop the spread of strong commercial encryption, it now sees it as an economic tool and a weapon in grass roots struggles for democracy.

Cell phones and social media emerged as important tools during the Arab Spring uprisings of the last two years, but the open nature of these networks have sometimes left users exposed to the governments they are protesting or fighting. These groups now have access to consumer technology that puts them on an equal footing with governments. Bits and bytes might not stand up to bombs and bullets, but this helps to level the playing field.

Posted by William Jackson on Sep 10, 2013 at 11:02 AM


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