Making A Totally Secret Email Service That Even Non-Hackers Can Use

The technology folk hero who shut down his email service rather than obey a secret government court order is now back at it, building a new “NSA-proof” communication client once and for all.

Making A Totally Secret Email Service That Even Non-Hackers Can Use
[Image via Shutterstock]

Ladar Levison, the founder of Lavabit, the secure email service used by Edward Snowden, emerged as something of a technological folk hero after he decided to fight the government’s secret court order demanding he turn over information about his users to the U.S. surveillance apparatus. As a result, Lavabit is no more, but that doesn’t mean that Levison’s given up on trying to provide a secure email workaround.


Now, he just needs funds and the developer talent, and he’s using Kickstarter to find it.

Last week, we learned that Levison has teamed up with Mike Janke of Silent Circle, another secure messaging service that also shut down its email provider, in order to work on Dark Mail, a new “privacy-by-design” email service. Dark Mail aims to provide a set of temporary encryption keys to users that disappear after each conversation. Theoretically, this means that even if a federal agency did come after Dark Mail with an information request, the service wouldn’t be able to provide those keys.

But Dark Mail isn’t just intended for privacy wonks. It’s supposed to be “easy enough that grandma can use,” according to Levison’s latest Kickstarter campaign.

That’s where needed coding talent, and the fundraising, comes in. “The Summer of Snowden may have taken the Lavabit email service offline, but the lifeblood of the service is still alive and relevant to Dark Mail,” Levison writes. “The goal is to perfect and release its source code as a free and open-source software (F/OSS) project.”

Here’s more:

Along with preserving existing functionality, the team will build in support for the Dark Mail protocol. Dark Mail, a newly developed messaging protocol, is designed to provide end-to-end encryption of both the message itself and the email in transit. Because encryption will be integrated into the protocol itself, it will be invisible to the user. Dark Mail users will get the security of PGP without the cognitive burden; if someone can use email today they will be able to use Dark Mail tomorrow.

The project will also include building, and releasing as F/OSS, the first Dark Mail compatible clients. We are planning to launch with clients for the desktop (Win, Mac, Lin), smartphones and tablets (iOS, Android).

Provide the funding and you’ll get access to the source code and binaries before the general public. Be one of the first service providers to support the new Dark Mail protocol!

It’s a risky, if somewhat pessimistic venture to design an email service that’s NSA-proof. But Mike Janke, Levison’s business partner, believes Dark Mail could initiate a new kind of “architecture for the Internet,” now that the NSA leaks have ushered in a new kind of privacy-awareness.


“We’ve never in our collective lives at our age, being in our late 40s and 50s, ever seen anything like this. We get calls daily from places like Iceland, Belgium, Rwanda, from government and private consumers, how do we implement this, how do we do this,” Janke told me in a recent phone call. “The absolute awareness across the board is just overwhelming.”

Janke feels that the NSA revelations have staying power, and will continue to shift people’s opinions about their data and where it goes. “Regardless of what you think of privacy or the NSA, this has 75 other reasons why it should be implemented,” Janke added. “So we dedicate it to giving it to the world.”

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.