The NSA's bulk collection of metadata reminds Dark Mail co-creator Ladar Levison of the guilt-by-association of the 1950's Communist-hunting McCarthy era.
"I think we lost the freedom of association, and we didn't realize it," Levison said. "The fear now is that if I email you, and you're under surveillance... I will, in turn, place myself under surveillance."
Dark Mail is not NSA-proof. The government can still target a person and follow each email's trail. But to do that, the government would have to trace every stop along an email's path -- device, server, server and device.
Using Dark Mail is like mailing an envelope that, on the outside, is only addressed to and from post offices. Finding the actual sender and recipient is not an unsolvable mystery, but it creates some drag for the dragnet.
"Done right, this should make it technologically impossible to conduct mass surveillance," Levison said.
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This isn't Levison's first attempt at building a highly private communication tool. He created a similar email service called Lavabit, but he closed it last year when FBI agents demanded he silently give up information about one particular Lavabit user: Edward Snowden.
Dark Mail and Lavabit have one important difference: Unlike Lavabit, Levison doesn't hold the keys to Dark Mail -- each individual user does. Emails are encrypted on users' devices, protected by their passwords. That means even he can't read Dark Mail users' emails, and he would have nothing to turn over to the feds should they come asking.
Dark Mail won't be available for another six months. Levison is still developing it with Stephen Watt, a former Wall Street coder (now a convicted hacker who served time in prison). Levison said Dark Mail could work as an add-on with all major email services -- as long as they make slight tweaks to their code. Levison is trying to get Google, Microsoft(MSFT, Tech30)Yahoo(YHOO, Tech30) and other email providers on board.
If users want to use Dark Mail as its own email sending program, Levison is developing an email client called "Volcano." From initial sketches Levison showed CNNMoney, Volcano won't look or feel too different from every other email service we use.