VPN provider CryptoSeal nixes consumer service over legal worries

CryptoSeal said it fears the government may ask for its SSL keys if it can't comply with a pen register order

A San Francisco-based security company will no longer sell a consumer virtual private network (VPN) service, citing an uncertain legal environment that could threaten its users' privacy.

CryptoSeal is the latest company to voluntarily shut down its service after the U.S. government's legal action against Lavabit, an email service used by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

[ALSO: US demanded access to encryption keys of email provider Lavabit]

In a notice on its website, CryptoSeal wrote that it fears the government could force it to turn over its cryptographic keys if it cannot comply with a pen register order, which asks for certain information on users' communications.

Most email services use SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) encryption between servers and users. Obtaining the private SSL keys from a service provider would give law enforcement access to all users' communications rather than just one person.

Ryan Lackey, CryptoSeal's founder, said via email that his company is working "on technical systems which will make it possible to operate a service like this in the U.S. safely, but we think the best solution is legislative action by Congress and hopefully a successful resolution to the Lavabit case."

When he shut down Lavabit, founder Ladar Levison said he could no longer guarantee that users' data was protected. Court documents showed Levison was forced to turn over Lavabit's private SSL keys. He's appealing the order in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

CryptoSeal said its system does not record the common information requested through a pen register order.

"The consequence, being forced to turn over cryptographic keys to our entire system on the strength of a pen register order, is unreasonable in our opinion, and likely unconstitutional, but until this matter is settled, we are unable to proceed with our service," the company wrote.

The company's consumer service had fewer than 1,000 customers, but was profitable, Lackey said.

The cryptographic keys used for its consumer service, called CryptoSeal Privacy, have been "zerofilled," it said. Although it did not retain logs for the service's users, "all records created incidental to the operation of the service have been deleted to the best of our ability."

A VPN service for businesses, called CryptoSeal Connect, will remain running since it has a different user base and risk profile, Lackey said. "Users opt in to corporate monitoring, and the users are actually all in regulated industries where monitoring is expected," he wrote.

Shortly after Levison shut down Lavabit, Silent Circle canceled its encrypted email service, saying it hadnot received court orders but "it is always better to be safe than sorry."

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com. Follow me on Twitter: @jeremy_kirk

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