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Android privacy service goes dark

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A company that provided free cellphone encryption to dissidents in Egypt abruptly suspended its services on Monday so that Twitter could integrate some of its privacy enabling technology into the microblogging site.

Twitter's acquisition of San Francisco-based Whisper Systems came on Monday, the same day Egyptian citizens participated in their nation's first parliamentary elections since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, whose repressive regime ruled the country for three decades. That means Egyptian dissidents who relied on Whisper Systems RedPhone to encrypt voice calls made with their Android smartphones abruptly lost the ability to protect calls from government-controlled eavesdroppers at a time they might need it most.

It was only nine months ago that Whisper Systems said it was rushing out an international version of the encryption software to support the historic protests that were then sweeping the African nation's populace.

“The timing is atrocious,” said Chris Sogohian, a privacy researcher with the Open Society Foundations. “Today is Egypt's first election after it threw out its old regime, and the only encrypted voice communication tool for Android goes dark. This couldn't have happened at a worse time for people in Egypt.”

Statements issued by a Twitter spokesman didn't address why the RedPhone service was being shut down now, and Moxie Marlinspike, a security researcher and Whisper Systems co-founded, didn't respond to an email seeking comment for this post.

In a terse statement on its website, Whisper Systems said: “The Whisper Systems software as our users know it will live on (and we have some surprises in store that we're excited about), but there is unfortunately a transition period where we will have to temporarily take our products and services offline. RedPhone service will be interrupted immediately, but FlashBack users have a month to pull off any backup data they would like before that service also goes offline.”

RedPhone is an app that encrypts voice communications on phones running Google's Android operating system. The service makes it easy for Android users to make and receive encrypted calls regardless of carriers involved, but it requires the use of a third-party server to briefly set up the protected session. Taking down the server had the immediate effect of disrupting the service, even though users still had the software installed on their handsets.

As the statement from Whisper Systems made clear, those who used a separate cloud-based encrypted backup service known as Flashback have 30 days to make alternate arrangements. There was no indication that a separate app known as TextSecure, which encrypts text messages, would be affected. It doesn't rely on servers to encrypt and decrypt messages.

News that Twitter was acquiring Whisper Systems came as a surprise for another reason: Technologies such as voice encryption and cloud storage aren't considered a core Twitter competency or service. In many respects, software that actively prevents messages from being read by all but a single person seems to be well outside Twitter's stated goal of providing a real-time network that connects users around the world to the latest information.

Whisper Systems' use of the word “temporarily” to describe the RedPhone closing suggests that the service may return. The most likely scenario is that the apps and supporting software will be released as open-source wares so that a volunteer somewhere in the world can run the supporting website.

But until then, dissidents and others who need RedPhone to encrypt their Android calls have no ability to use the service – and they have the Twitter acquisition to thank for the disruption. ®

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