The World’s Email Encryption Software Relies on One Guy, Who is Going Broke

Werner Koch’s code powers the email encryption programs around the world. If only somebody would pay him for the work.

Werner Koch

Werner Koch

Credit: Ola Waagen/Flickr

Update, Feb. 5, 2015, 8:10 p.m.: After this article appeared, Werner Koch informed us that last week he was awarded a one-time grant of $60,000 from Linux Foundation's Core Infrastructure Initiative. Werner told us he only received permission to disclose it after our article published. Meanwhile, since our story was posted, donations flooded Werner's website donation page and he reached his funding goal of $137,000. In addition, Facebook and the online payment processor Stripe each pledged to donate $50,000 a year to Koch’s project.

The man who built the free email encryption software used by whistleblower Edward Snowden, as well as hundreds of thousands of journalists, dissidents and security-minded people around the world, is running out of money to keep his project alive.

Werner Koch wrote the software, known as Gnu Privacy Guard, in 1997, and since then has been almost single-handedly keeping it alive with patches and updates from his home in Erkrath, Germany. Now 53, he is running out of money and patience with being underfunded.

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"I'm too idealistic," he told me in an interview at a hacker convention in Germany in December. "In early 2013 I was really about to give it all up and take a straight job." But then the Snowden news broke, and "I realized this was not the time to cancel."

Like many people who build security software, Koch believes that offering the underlying software code for free is the best way to demonstrate that there are no hidden backdoors in it giving access to spy agencies or others. However, this means that many important computer security tools are built and maintained by volunteers.

Now, more than a year after Snowden's revelations, Koch is still struggling to raise enough money to pay himself and to fulfill his dream of hiring a full-time programmer. He says he's made about $25,000 per year since 2001 — a fraction of what he could earn in private industry. In December, he launched a fundraising campaign that has

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