Jon Callas on privacy in the modern age

In this interview, Jon Callas, co-founder of PGP and current CTO at Silent Circle, discusses the global erosion of privacy and the importance of confidentiality.

He tackles the challenges of retaining secrecy on the Internet, privacy legislation, as well as issues encountered while developing Silent Circle.

As the co-founder of PGP, you’ve been a vocal privacy advocate for a long time. What’s your take on the global erosion of privacy taking place in the last decade? Where are we headed?
We’re moving into a strange place, with technology and social mores pushing us to less privacy by default. Interestingly, there seems to be a push-back against the larger trend. It will be interesting to see if people care about their privacy enough to do something about it. There are plenty of opportunities, but the major obstacle is people caring enough about their privacy to do something.

The good news is that they are starting to do so. It’s manifesting itself in people wanting control over their own personal data, people wanting their own space, people wondering what’s behind the offer that’s free. I’m more hopeful now than I have been in several years.

A popular opinion among politicians is: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about”. Why is privacy still important, even if you have nothing to hide?
That’s just a canard. It’s a way to justify intrusions into privacy by tacitly calling the rest of us names. It’s a convenience for them to intrude on us, and they say that there’s something wrong with us for not liking it. There are plenty of defenses of the need for privacy, and if I just repeat them then we’re wasting this interview.

They only get away with that if we let them. We need to recognize the trick for what it is and not let them get away with saying that somehow we don’t deserve privacy. Everyone has the right to be left alone, and that’s all that it is.

Sadly, that means that this is going to be the last time you can ask a privacy advocate this question.

Security professionals tend to state that it is impossible to retain privacy if one uses the Internet. Is there any truth in that? Does it depend on what we share and how much we share? Is there anything users can do in order to prevent the leakage of sensitive data or is there no way around it?
Maybe. The most important thing someone can do is to realize that nothing is free and to ask yourself if you think you’re getting a good deal when you sell your information.

Sometimes it’s a good deal. Heck, we all like being shown non-stupid ads. We like good searches, and those don’t come for nothing. I like knowing what people I know are up to, as well. I wouldn’t pay for a social network because it’s just not worth that much to me, and most of us agree – that’s why there are a dearth of for-pay social networks.

The idea is to realize you’re paying for everything. Sometimes we pay with cash, sometimes privacy. The real thing to ask yourself is if you’re getting a good deal.

What kind of privacy legislation would you like to see in the near future?
I’d like to see data retention laws changed. There’s discussion in the EU now for a “right to be forgotten.” In many cases, this is being aimed at the likes of Google and Facebook, and the difficulty in keeping them from tracking you. Yet the EU has data retention laws that require service providers to keep lots of unnecessary information about everyone’s network activities, and this is far more intrusive than anything else. The idea is good, and I support it. We need more of it.

Can you introduce Silent Circle to our readers? What are its main features?
Silent Circle is a secure information service for mobile devices. It provides secure voice and video calls and secure texting with attachments through our proprietary global network and our Silent Phone and Silent Text mobile apps. The keys are on your device. Not even we can decrypt them.

We also don’t keep metadata, which is suddenly very big in the news. We don’t keep track of who you call or who you text. The servers have to make connections, of course, but they don’t keep track of it.

We also have an email system that’s okay as email systems go, but email itself is broken beyond help from a security and privacy standpoint. We’re using PGP Universal for it, and it works for people with the right threat model, but it doesn’t have the really cool security properties of our peer-to-peer Silent Phone and Silent Text apps, for example.

As you might expect from things I wrote in response to other questions, we charge for the service. Our idea is that we are offering to use our expertise to protect your privacy, and part of the contract is that you’re paying us, so we’re obligated to do our best.

What were the most significant challenges you encountered while developing Silent Circle? How has user feedback defined the product?
The biggest challenge was deciding to do it. When we were planning the company, I was the one raining on my partners’ parade. I think I estimated that there would only be ten to twenty thousand people in the whole world willing to pay for a secure service. I was wrong and I’m pleasantly surprised.

User feedback has helped us a lot. We wouldn’t have introduced our email service, Silent Mail, if people hadn’t asked us for it. We have been focusing on very strong commitments to security, which is also an interesting intellectual problem – how do I make a service that considers me part of the threat? But people wanted something that just works, so we did email, too.

A number of other key features were requests from our early users. They’re the ones who asked for sending locations with text messages so they can coordinate meet-ups. They are also the ones who asked for messages that auto-delete. We took those suggestions and built them into the product because they were useful to people, and that was a surprise because they are very, very useful and very simple, too.