Snowden's Favorite Email Service Returns, With 'Trustful,' 'Cautious,' And 'Paranoid' Modes

from the can-a-phoenix-be-composed-of-lava-(and,-um,-bits-I-guess)? dept

A little more than three years after it shut down to avoid complying with federal prosecutors’ demands for its encryption key, Lavabit is returning to life. The secure email system, whose most famous user was Edward Snowden, fought the US government in court over demands to produce the key that would unlock access not only Snowden’s emails, but those of every user. Not only did it shut down, but it also memorably delivered a 4-point middle finger to the feds in the middle of the legal battle.

With its users’ privacy secured — along with its legacy (Snowden-approved, man-sticking-it-to-itiveness) — the Lavabit team gave the code to the public and started working on a newer, more secure email platform. As Kim Zetter reports for The Intercept, Lavabit’s successor is now live.

[Ladar Levinson is] relaunching Lavabit with a new architecture that fixes the SSL problem and includes other privacy-enhancing features as well, such as one that obscures the metadata on emails to prevent government agencies like the NSA and FBI from being able to find out with whom Lavabit users communicate. He’s also announcing plans to roll out end-to-end encryption later this year, which would give users an even more secure way to send email.

The “SSL problem” was the weak link the government sought — the key that would unlock all users’ accounts, rather than just the one targeted. With this eliminated, Lavabit’s new basic option should be far more resistant to government demands than its earlier version.

With the new architecture, Lavabit will no longer be able to hand over its SSL key, because the key is now stored in a hardware security module — a tamper-resistant device that provides a secure enclave for storing keys and performing sensitive functions, like encryption and decryption. Lavabit generates a long passphrase blindly so the company doesn’t know what it is; Lavabit then inserts the key into the device and destroys the passphrase.

But if vanilla Lavabit still feels a bit compromisable, there are a couple new tiers of increasing darkness available to users, known as “Cautious” and “Paranoid.” (The vanilla tier is “Trustful,” which places the security duties completely in Lavabit’s hands.) “Cautious” offers end-to-end encryption, with the encryption key being stored in users’ devices, but while still using Lavabit’s server to transfer the key from device to device. (This will also allow users to recover keys if needed.)

“Paranoid” goes even further.

Some people who want more security — like activists, journalists, and whistleblowers — might balk at having their key stored on a third-party server. That’s where Paranoid mode comes in. The key for doing end-to-end encryption remains on the user’s device and never goes to Lavabit’s server. But to use another device, the user has to manually move the key to it. And there’s no way to recover the key if the user loses it or deletes it.

In all three cases, it will be difficult-to-impossible for governments to demand access to users’ communications. Additionally, Lavabit’s service will deliberately mangle metadata, making it mostly useless to surveillance agencies engaging in passive collection, as well as to government agencies seeking to obtain these so-called “third party records.” This is utilized in all three tiers and is based on Tor’s origin/destination obfuscation tactics. The most that can be gleaned from the metadata is the domain sending or receiving the email — but not both on any single record.

Unsurprisingly, Lavabit had little to say on its “responsiveness” to government demands for users’ communications, letting the end products speak for themselves. If the internet perceives censorship as damage and routes around it, communications platforms are more frequently coming to the conclusion that government surveillance is just more wreckage to avoided.

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Companies: lavabit

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Comments on “Snowden's Favorite Email Service Returns, With 'Trustful,' 'Cautious,' And 'Paranoid' Modes”

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21 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

This is an outrage! In the old days, all communications however sent could be recovered by journalists. When messages were written on paper, all manufacturers of sulphur matches could be required to provide technical means of reconstructing envelopes from ashes. Manufacturers of hammers, celts, or clubs could be required to provide tools to re-assemble broken cuneiform tablets. In a civilized society, Lavabit would be subject to the same requirements.

Anonymous Coward says:

With the new architecture, Lavabit will no longer be able to hand over its SSL key, because the key is now stored in a hardware security module — a tamper-resistant device that provides a secure enclave for storing keys and performing sensitive functions, like encryption and decryption. Lavabit generates a long passphrase blindly so the company doesn’t know what it is; Lavabit then inserts the key into the device and destroys the passphrase.

I’m just trying to understand – If that device breaks and needs replacing at some point, are those emails forever unrecoverable?

Arthur Moore (profile) says:

Re: If that device breaks and needs replacing at some point, are those emails forever unrecoverable?

No, because the SSL key is separate from E-Mail encryption.

SSL keys are used to secure communication between machines. In the case of encrypted E-Mail that’s the “To” “From” and “Subject” fields that aren’t encrypted. So, the metadata.

The thing about SSL keys is that they prove that a site is who it says it is. They’re the reason we trust the green lock icon in our browser. If a website lost one, they could just get another. It would be a bit of a hassle, but isn’t too big of a deal.

We only worry when an adversary has those keys. Then they can sniff traffic, or even pretend to be the website to get the e-mail encryption key.

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