Pat Pilcher: Silent Circle - secure comms for mere mortals

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Photo / Thinkstcok
Photo / Thinkstcok

The digital age has made tedious chores such as grocery shopping, banking or even paying bills quick and easy to do, but there is a dark side to all this convenience; recent news stories have thrown just how vulnerable businesses and governments are to hacks and digital espionage into sharp relief.

Whilst Government agencies have long had access to secure encrypted phone networks to limit any exposure to hackers or rogue governments, they've been too costly for most businesses, at least until now, thanks to the Silent Circle app and service, which provides a securely encrypted network that handle data, voice and text.

I caught up with Silent Circle team to find out how they work their security magic.

PP: What inspired you to come up with the Silent Circle application?

SC: We noticed that people who travel don't have a good way to talk securely to people back home. From talking to co-workers, wishing your kids a nice day, to having to do paperwork - things that need signatures, for example.

The security people have many, many recommendations on what "not" to do, but very few about what is a good idea. We recognized that this was a niche that needed to be filled.

We expected Silent Circle to be a boutique service for a small number of people. We are pleased that we have hit a chord with many people who see this as filling a need for many, many people.

PP: For those that are unfamiliar with the application, what does it specifically do?

SC: It is a service, not merely an application. We charge a basic charge of $20/month per person. For that you get voice and video calling as well as secure texting with attachments.

We have apps for voice and video calls for iOS and Android as well as Windows desktop. The secure texting app is only for iOS; we're working on Android now.

All of the calls, texts, and attachments are encrypted. Furthermore, they're encrypted in such a way that only you and the person you are talking to can decrypt them. No one else can, not even us. The apps feel like what you're used to. You don't do much of anything different from what you'd do with the normal app.

That's where the heavy lifting comes in and why it's a service and not just an application. We are doing a lot of work so that you get the best protection anyone provides, yet it's as easy as what you're already doing.

We also offer an add-on where you can make voice calls to any regular phone in the US, Canada, and Puerto Rico. These are secure to our servers in Canada, where a normal phone call is placed on your behalf. This is $30 per month for up to 3000 minutes of calls.

PP: There seems to be a real rise in the use of heavy duty encryption, especially with the high profile launch of Mega. What do you think is driving this?

SC: It's common knowledge now that criminals and rogue governments are spying as business and policy, stealing money and information for their own gain. This has been going on for quite some time, but no one doubts it any more.

We all need our information protected, and people are now willing to do something about it.

PP: So in laypersons terms, how does Silent Circle work?

SC: Magic fairies. Okay, actually, there are some tricks with mathematics that let two people trade numbers. I make up a number and you make up a number and then after a lot of math, I know the number that you made up and you know the number I made up, and anyone listening in doesn't get to know either of them.

This trick involves mathematics that are so tedious that only a computer would even bother trying. But it's easy on a computer.

PP: How secure is it?

SC: We're using the same techniques that major governments use to protect their own work. The best cryptographers and mathematicians agree that it would take fifty to one hundred years to crack, even if Moore's Law continues indefinitely. So I'd say good enough.

PP: What sort of audience is it aimed at?

SC: Individuals and organisations who care about talking securely and privately. If you travel, do business abroad, or do the sorts of things that would attract people spying on you? If so, you're part of our audience.

PP: It must be attracting a bit of interest from the law enforcement and intelligence community?

SC: We welcome them as customers along with everyone else.

PP: Will they be able to intercept data or voice calls and decrypt them?

SC: No. The same technologies that prevent the criminals and rogue governments from spying preclude them from intercepting calls or data.

Note that the service that allows calls to normal telephones are secure only to the servers that place that call.


PP: So where to from here for Silent Circle?

SC: We are tackling email next. Our initial offering will be for an email service that normal email programs can use and will enhance email security with either S/MIME or OpenPGP encryption. We offer it so that you can give us your key and we can use it with email, or we can generate a key for you. Obviously, if we generate the key, this is not as secure as if you do, but it is far more convenient.

- NZ Herald

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