PRISM, Edward Snowden and Internet security – let’s clarify things

Privacy cloudIn the wake of the Prism revelations, two American companies offering secure e-mail services have closed their doors. The trust in American cloud services is gradually being lost. Luckily, Europe applies other criteria where privacy is concerned, and Combell offers rock-solid guarantees.

Edward Snowden’s revelations are still causing a stir and seem to have a growing number of negative consequences for the image of the American government, but also for the country’s technology sector. A brief recap: Snowden, who was a subcontractor in the employ of the American intelligence service that is the National Security Agency (NSA), found evidence of mass interception of civilian and business communication. What disturbed him most was that it sufficed to fill out a simple online form to get a closer look at certain communication – a warrant from a judge wasn’t required, as it is the case with an ordinary rule of law. Snowden provided proof hereof to the British newspaper The Guardian, which got the ball rolling. The whistleblower then ran for the hills and ended up in Moscow, where he found temporary asylum – much to American president Obama’s dismay. Relations between Russia and Obama have considerably cooled since the events took place.

Besides their social impact, these events also have repercussions for the American technology sector. According to announcements in The Guardian, not a single bit of communication – civilian or business – can escape this surveillance system. Not only American, but also European companies could become the subject of this type of monitoring when using the services of American hosting companies or mail providers and/or servers located on American soil. All American cloud services thus came under scrutiny. Many companies suddenly wondered about the exact location of the servers on which their website, mail services, etc. were running. Combell got asked these questions too, but was able to reassure its customers: all Combell servers are located on Belgian or European soil and are subject to Belgian and European laws, which are much stricter in protecting privacy than is American law.

But that was not the end of the Snowden case. For his correspondence – inviting the press to a press conference at Sheremtyevo airport in Moscow – Snowden had used the services of Lavabit, an American company that offered secure e-mail services. And, last week, Lavabit suddenly announced that it’s closing down. The owner, Ladar Levison, says to be legally sworn to secrecy about the reasons for the closure. He only reveals that he had the choice between “becoming an accomplice to crimes against the people of America or losing 10 years of hard work”. Choosing the latter was a painful ordeal for him.

It seems that Lavabit isn’t the only company that is worried about the heightened—to use an understatement—“curiosity” of the American government. Another provider of secure communications, Silent Circle, has announced early this week that its Silent Mail product will be discontinued as a precautionary measure. The company affirms not to have suffered any coercion from the American government—no subpoena, no enforcement order or any other sign that it would be scrutinized. But rather than wait for an enforcement action, Silent Circle chose to preventively discontinue its Silent Mail services and protect its users’ privacy.

This is a worrisome trend indeed: small e-mail services forced to commit ‘privacy seppuku’ to protect their customers, while large e-mail companies’ silence on security is far from reassuring.

Is the security of e-mails and communication on the Internet compromised? This is definitely a question that will rise among many civilians and companies, outside of the US as well, who are worried about the confidentiality of their mail. To this question as well, hosting company Combell has a reassuring answer for its customers: the privacy of Combell users, companies and civilians alike, is guaranteed by Belgian and European laws and the security of their communication will remain unadulterated.