Privacy in communications begs for distributed or local economy model

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This image is from a post by Lavabit indicating it is closing because of a U.S. government takedown.

Local economy is able to deliver results for Chattanoogans and people elsewhere in a remarkable number of areas. Another one that occurs to me is the area of secure communications.

People are taking up the concept of local economy and slowly acting more self-consciously in terms of their neighbor. They are repatriating capital from Wall Street to Main Street. They go out of their way to avoid Wal-Mart or Publix. They ditch Comcast Communications for a local phone provider in the Chattanooga area such as Revtel. They buy tires from the local Ricketts family at Northgate Tire rather than the national chain a block away, National Tire & Battery Auto Center.

In every case the local yokel intends to favor local over national, hometown over U.S.A, county government over federal, small over big, near vs. far.

He favors, in effect, a decentralized model of economics. He is not eager to land another Volkswagen or Amazon warehouse in his town. He’d rather see a hundred small businesses be launched in garages, living rooms and small storefronts.

The ‘good people’ threaten providers

Another way of looking at decentralization is by seeing it as a nonsystem, a vast marketplace, a distributed model. Distributed means spread out. Scattered. Here and yon. All over the place.

The distributed model for secure communications comes into view more clearly in recent days with governmental threats of private email providers. Secret federal action has forced Lavabit, which offers private communications, to shut down. That takedown prompted another company, Silent Circle, to abandon secure email as it can no longer assure users the government hasn’t hacked or surveiled it.

Silent Circle, of National Harbor, Md., said it “preemptively discontinued” its secure email service because it cannot guarantee that the government is not spying upon its users. “We’ve been debating this for weeks, and had changes planned starting next Monday. We’d considered phasing the service out, continuing service for existing customers, and a variety of other things up until today. It is always better to be safe than sorry, and with your safety we decided that in this case the worst decision is no decision,” the company says on its website.

The company chief technology officer, Jon Callas, said it hadn’t received any “subpoenas, warrants, security letters, or anything else by any government, and this is why we are acting now.”

Lavabit earlier Thursday had announced it is closing to avoid compromising clients’ data. The company had been used by government whistleblower Edward Snowden. The statement by Ladar Levison, the owner and operator of the encrypted email service, suggests the sort of pressure upon him, pressure that is a federal crime to reveal if it is part of a Fisa court operation. ‡

The distributed or peer model boosts local economy

A distributed model for secure email is being proposed by a programmer in the Chattanooga area, John Kozlowski, who operates several software platforms. One of them allows employers to pay workers hourly, rather than a month late — a common practice among American corporations that feeds the payday loan industry in Chattanooga.

Another Kozlowski program is Shofar Portfolio, which has been in development for some time to provide commoners with secure communication online. The maverick programmer’s secure email system gives him, the software creator, no access to clients’ data. The system relies on encryption plus a constant exchange of electronic trash among servers. That constant traffic lets emails, attachments and data fly across the World Wide Web undetected. Meaning, metadata cannot be discerned by meddlers.

The theory of his business plan is that the software is “distributed, on a massive scale,” he says. Mr. Kozlowski is looking for partners to download his software for free and become sellers of secure email. If enough entrepreneurs in their localities believe they can make a living selling secure email, he says, they can be resellers of the service. Mr. Kozlowski says he would make his living advising, troubleshooting, marketing and selling server space. Mr. Kozlowski dubs the system the Matryoshka model. Matryoshkha refers to the Russian art dolls of the 19th century wherein one egg-shaped doll can be split to reveal another inside, which in turn can be split to reveal one more, and so on. The doll within a doll within a doll.

It is a paid model that obliterates the content of a letter as well as clients’ computer use and its connections with other computers — the metadata, in other words.

Programmer looking for allies, users

The compromises Americans make with big corporations such as Google and the government, with its surveillance, will do them no favors, Mr. Kozlowski says. Governments are the biggest proponents of violence and genocide, he says. People in foreign countries, religious and other minorities and missionaries are vulnerable to surveillance by dictators, security forces and police officials. He has a bleak view of the willingness of the U.S. to respect the people’s constitutional rights.

“What we have going live in August in Utah, the Utah data center,” Mr. Kozlowski says, “is our government putting in effectively the world’s largest data center to store everything that everyone says, where they say it, when they say it, what is said for the entire life of every citizen in the United States. They have that information, as as they mature it, know how to use it, it is a tool against you that can make life inconvenient, and can make life end.”

Can Mr. Kozlowski distribute software named after the Israelite warning horn? It seems like a race against time and parties hostile to the very concept of privacy and secure communications. I tell him the public is not greatly interested in secure communications, and his trouble attracting capital suggests people are either indifferent to the bright prospect he offers, or averse to the peril of offering an asset Uncle Sam opposes.‡‡ Shofar Portfolio, he says, it not based on a man, but on numbers of users and resellers. It’s not based on policy, but on a fixed algorithm.  “If something happens to any one of us, the system stays up.”

This screenshot is from Shofarportfolio.com, the site of Chattanooga-area programmer John Kozlowski that has developed a secure email service.

He says if Shofar Portfolio has 0.01 percent of traffic, “we have a several multimillion dollar business distributed among families. There are no corporations involved, no central player; no one is getting a percentage of everything. Everybody is getting a little part. And I would rather have 1 percent of something that large than 100 percent of something that may make only a few thousand dollars a year.”

Mr. Kozlowski says he would measure success by the number of people who use his system, either as sellers or users. If his technology gains scale, it will be unstoppable, he says.


Video streaming by Ustream David listens to John Kozlowski explain how his programming for secure email will work in a decentralized and local economy model.

Sources: Gizmodo.com;, wsj.com tech blog, “Snowden’s email service shuts”

‡‡ Privacy, that is, except in abortion

‡ “I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit. After significant soul searching, I have decided to suspend operations. I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision. I cannot. I feel you deserve to know what’s going on–the first amendment is supposed to guarantee me the freedom to speak out in situations like this. Unfortunately, Congress has passed laws that say otherwise. As things currently stand, I cannot share my experiences over the last six weeks, even though I have twice made the appropriate requests.

“What’s going to happen now? We’ve already started preparing the paperwork needed to continue to fight for the Constitution in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. A favorable decision would allow me resurrect Lavabit as an American company. This experience has taught me one very important lesson: without congressional action or a strong judicial precedent, I would — strongly — recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States.”

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