Edward Snowden continues to prompt discussion about how much secrecy is appropriate when it comes to national security – at least as far as the U.S. is concerned. His opinions on appropriate levels of secrecy in host nation Russia or previous host nation China will come later, we hope.
A recent Slate article here, says that Snowden is the inspiration for something called the Dark Mail Alliance, which aims to make an email protocol that is immune from surveillance by governments. This will involve “ephemeral” encryption keys held only by sender and recipients of email – keys that disappear once the email has been read. Servers are planned for Canada or Switzerland.
While we’re not fans of porously insecure email, as we’ve written here, for instance, we come out in the middle of the security debate. Just as ethical attorneys promise to keep the secrets of their clients (but not at all times no matter what), locking up the email of third parties and throwing away the key reminds us that Libertarians (at least when it comes to information) want to become the non-judgmental offshore bankers of tomorrow.
The way some offshore banks in a fast-changing array of countries disclaim any interest in the reason money flows there, some information brokers take no interest in the content of the emails they protect. Emails of freedom-seeking activists in Zimbabwe or China would get the same level protection as emails of people trafficking in children, illegal drugs or chemical weapons. The bankers in the most unsavory domains don’t care what the money is for, and neither do the email protectors.
But just as most offshore jurisdictions will cooperate with law enforcement seeking to find out who controls a particular bank account (where evidence of a crime meets a particular standard), it seems a reasonable assumption that the authorities in Switzerland and Canada would not permit unlimited secrecy of all emails housed in their jurisdictions.
After all, Switzerland now cooperates with the U.S. to combat tax evasion. Why would the Swiss go to bat for someone suspected of trafficking in weapons, drugs or children? As for Canada, the tradition of offshore secrecy in that country is exactly zero.
As much as we hear talk of the cloud today, email still has to live somewhere physical. The Dark Mail Alliance, if it gets going, needs to rethink its location of home base.