Silent Circle got its start with a phone call—the everyday kind of communication the privacy-protection startup hopes to secure when it launches its first product next month.
Internet Hall of Famer and privacy guru Phil Zimmermann was minding his own business (as he always does) when he got a call from a former Navy Seal, Mike Janke.
Zimmermann didn't know Janke. But Janke had a big idea for a new kind of superprivate, secure version of Skype. So he called up one of the world's experts on privacy and security and asked him to help found a company.
Zimmermann is the inventor of Pretty Good Privacy, a system for encrypting data, and the Zfone encrypted Internet phone. He was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in April.
"I thought it was a great thing," Zimmermannn told Business Insider. "I like providing privacy to individuals."
Janke was running a private defense firm that did things like protect U.S. dignitaries traveling in Iraq. He noticed people who traveled for highly secure jobs couldn't use their work PCs with consumer tools like Skype or Gmail. The IT controls on the PC wouldn't let them. So they couldn't say do good-night video calls with their kids or send personal emails.
After agreeing to the project, Zimmermann called Jon Callas, another privacy expert. Callas and Zimmermann had cofounded a company built around Pretty Good Privacy in the '90s.
Callas hated the idea of doing another privacy startup.
"We've been through 20 years of trying to get people to care about their own privacy," Callas said. "I was the cynical one. Mike had to convince me the time was right, that enough things are different now and we should try again."
Things have changed. There's the bring-your-own-device phenomenon, where people bring personal devices and expect them to work with corporate IT systems. And people are paying attention to privacy settings and throwing fits at Facebook and Google over privacy missteps.
It is deliberately bootstrapped. The cofounders, who include another ex-Navy Seal, Vic Hyder, have turned down venture funding offers, in large part to the terrible experience Zimmermann and Callas had with PGP in the 1990s, they said. Venture capital flowed freely. When the bubble burst, they had to sell their company to a larger firm, Network Associates.
Silent Circle will officially launch its secure communications service on October 15.
It's ridiculously simple to use. Fire up the app on any smartphone or tablet and dial, text, or send email. Whatever the message or call, it's encrypted in a way that governments or hackers (or government-backed hackers) can't break. It won't have a free version, but it will be affordable, Zimmermann promises, and it will never, ever have advertisers.
The company is targeting people who already know their conversations must remain private and secure—such as doctors, bankers, and military personal.