The disclosure by NSA contractor Edward Snowden has exposed an ‘out-of-control’ surveillance system of the US and the UK. The more stories we are getting from Guardian and NYTimes, the more people are losing trust in the companies which operate from these two countries.
There is virtually no confidentiality and privacy of communications these days. Most of us may not care about government agencies accessing our email and communications (though we should). There are actually many people and organizations who want to keep their data away from the hands of agencies like NSA or GCHQ for many legitimate reasons. Data is power and if an entity has access to your data, that entity has a lot of power over you.
Abuse of data
There are investigative journalists who may be covering wrongdoings of governments and have sources whose lives could be at risk if the repressive regimes learn about them. There can also be trade negotiations between governments and if one government has access to all of the private communications of the party with whom they are negotiating, that government will have an unfair advantage.
There are many more such cases where you do need to have some privacy. I often hear claims like, “I don’t have anything to hide”, or, “I don’t do anything wrong so I don’t care.” It’s dangerous thinking. Just because you don’t do anything wrong doesn’t mean you take a shower in public. You do go behind closed doors. You don’t install web cameras in your bedroom for the whole world to watch just because you don’t have anything to hide. You do wear clothes, right? You don’t go out naked.
There are many companies which offer secure communication solutions to those who do want privacy. In the US there were companies like Lavabit and Silent Circle which offered secure email. However, both companies announced that they were shutting down their mail service as the government wanted access to the data. In the US, you actually don’t have any option – either you comply, or go to jail.
The shutdown of these services created a void.
When the US government is turning hostile towards those who want privacy of communication, is there any place on Earth where you can get such a ‘right’ without having to worry about whether your data is really secure?
The answer is yes! There are companies like Kolab Systems, that offer secure email solutions.
What makes Kolab solutions more trustworthy than Lavabit or Silent Circle? Why are they immune from the far reaching hands of the US government? Why should someone trust Kolab more than Lavabit or Silent Circle?
We talked to Georg C. F. Greve, CEO and Chairman of board of Kolab Systems and discussed all of these points. Before we talk about how Kolab offers solutions to the problems created by the US and the UK, let’s have a look at its history.
History of Kolab
Greve told me that Kolab was born in Europe. The local government Bundesamt für Sicherheit in der Informationstechnik (BSI) wanted to have a system which was fully auditable, secure, open source and based on open standards. They did not find anything that they needed available in the market so they announced a tender which was won by 3 companies – Erfrakon, Intevention and Kdab.
These three companies worked together and created Kolab which was based on Free Software technologies and principles. Version 1 was released around 2002 and was installed at BSI. Initially they used it in a heterogeneous environment which was a mix of Windows and GNU/Linux desktops but later they switched to GNU/Linux exclusively – which now runs on their 500+ desktops.
Kolab strengthened the cryptography stack of free software
Open Source is all about collaboration and contribution – more than mere consumption. These three companies worked on a lot of technologies such as GnuPG and the entire S/MIME subset by working closely with g10code, the company of Werner Koch, the author of GnuPG. The work of these companies made essential contributions to the entire cryptography stack in free software. KDE PIM also benefited from their work and a lot of KDE PIM developers are part of the Kolab universe. So the work done was giving more to the free software than it was taking.
But unlike many open source projects suffering from NIH syndrome Kolab does it in the right way. “Everything that we do is upstream, always,” said Greve.
Kolab System was created
The initial companies started a Kolab Konsortium to provide Kolab services to the BSI and other users, as many public bodies in Germany had begun using Kolab. But by 2008 it became clear that Kolab had to change its approach to the business side because lack of focus and resource was also starting to have technical impact. Georg Greve joined Kolab in 2009 following some initial conversations with the Kolab Konsortium and took on the restructuring of the business side alongside the task of bringing the technology back on track together with Dr. Paul Adams from the KDE community who later left the business to take up a management position at KDAB.
Greve recalls, “We realized that the companies have not been able to do it justice because they were project based and that’s a bad fit to manage a product in the long term. At the same time we saw the need for Kolab was as large as ever. Nothing else was going to provide this essential third pillar that was required for wide-scale Free Software adoption.”
When you develop for a project only it’s different from products which are widely available to customers outside that project. So Kolab needed a lot of re-structuring.
Greve said, “In 2010 we brought in a completely new crew which spent the past years largely redesigning, reinventing, refactoring the entire Kolab stack based on the groundbreaking concepts that had made Kolab unique. But some of the technologies used had aged. So it needed an overhaul. And that’s what we did with Kolab 3.”
The Kolab Groupware Solution integrates Roundcube as the basis of its web client and Kolab works closely with the Roundcube community which is known for the developing world’s most popular web-based IMAP email client.
Roundcube Webmail is designed to run on standard web servers such as Apache, Nginx, Lighttpd, Hiawatha or Cherokee in conjunction with a relational database engine. Supported databases are MySQL, PostgreSQL and SQLite. The user interface is rendered in XHTML and CSS and is fully customizable with skins.
“We have integrated ourselves very well with the Roundcube community and both major Roundcube developers work for Kolab Systems,” said Greve.
Collaboration with independence
“Roundcube is its own self run project so we don’t interfere at all with the running of the Roundcube project. However Kolab contributes heavily to the project and all versions from 0.7 onwards are largely based on our contributions. The Kolab Company Group also did a lot of work for the desktop, especially the KDE PIM on PIM client. At the same time we strengthened the native multi platform support. Now we have server side components for CalDAV and CardDAV so you can natively integrate Mac OS X and Thunderbird on all platforms through these. And then there is ActiveSync support so you can sync your mobile devices and tablets of any maker,” said Greve.
It’s modern and robust
Kolab manages to be fully featured without giving up its security centric design, with defense in depth and an approach where the server can be distributed into different security zones. At the same time it is extremely integration friendly, based on a set generated libraries for any operating system that expose their functions through libkolab in any language – from C++ over Java to Python and PHP. The combination of IMAP and libkolab provides instantaneous native Kolab support, anywhere.
MyKolab offers secure accounts hosted in Switzerland with support providing email, calendars, tasks, address books and a file cloud that synchronizes to all devices. MyKolab is the Gmail or Outlook.com equivalent with privacy for enterprise customers, SMEs, professionals and individuals who need trustworthy provider that treats them as customers, not products. It’s also the ideal way to try out Kolab for a while and then move to your own server, with or without support from Kolab Systems
What’s is Kolab’s target audience?
Before understanding their target audience we need to understand what are Kolab’s commercial offerings, what’s their business model.
“Our business model is similar to that of Red Hat or SUSE. We have an enterprise edition which is based on subscription and paid customers get a stabilized enterprise version of Kolab with five years of support which includes all updates and provides additional services as well as guaranteed response times,” explains Greve.
Anyone looking for a well supported solution is a target audience of Kolab Systems. The solution is used by the Schools in the city of Basel, Switzerland, but there are also customers which Greve could not name due to NDAs with the particular customers. Some of these, he explains, are very large organizations which use Kolab as a competitive advantage they do not wish their competitors to know about. Kolab is effectively used by every size of organization – from very small enterprises to bodies as big as regional governments. It’s also used by schools in Switzerland.
“We also provide this as a white label product to ISPs and offer consultancy, training around all of what we do and how third parties can integrate our services into their own product line,” says Greve.
In a nutshell it’s for everyone who wants to pay for a very well supported and secure system.
What about the community?
Community is never excluded from a free software project. There is always a community edition and Kolab is no exception. Anyone can grab the community edition from Kolab.org and use it in whatever set-up they want.
There is no difference between the community and enterprise version – there is no secret sauce in the enterprise version. The community version also sits on a secure server and Kolab team takes responsibility for it and they do as much as they can to support this version.
The difference is in release cycles, how long versions are available, lack of guaranteed updates, and who gets priority when it comes to fixing critical issues or implementing new features. “Most development happens in the open in the latest branch of the community version. So there is always more motion, usually more features, but also less stability. And the time based release every 6 months means that professional users should be actively involved in the QA and development or else they risk being left behind on a deprecated branch of development.”
“We do our best to make the community version as good as we can make it. But if there is a choice to be made Enterprise has to come first. And things then go to the community version as and when possible. So the benefit customers get by paying is that they get priority, but their support also benefits the entire community which gets the benefits, although in a less predictable fashion” clarifies Greve.
However, nothing gets locked into the enterprise edition, everything is made available as free software. Everyone benefits from it.
Contrary to the stabilized enterprise editions, the community version is released every six months. They ship whatever is ready for the release cycle, which is followed by regular updates like any other community software.
“This is for people who want to play with technology, develop and get their hands dirty. People engage. They experiment with the code, play to solve their own etches, build up their competency,” says Greve.
Can I fork Kolab?
Kolab uses a mix of free and open source licenses and allows forking. Forking is a good thing. If someone wants a feature or doesn’t want a feature or wants to do things in a manner that the project won’t do she can always take the code and do her own thing. Sometimes the ‘mother’ project realizes that it was actually a good thing and then merges that feature bringing the fork back – that’s the beauty of free software licenses, it allows one to merge things back.
At the same time, forks have a cost and are not always successful. Many times people think that it’s easy to fork the code, but don’t realize how much work it takes to continue to write the code and maintain it. Google has demonstrated this in the past, and is now spending substantial effort to bring its fork of the Linux kernel back into the mainstream since it has become too costly for them to maintain a fork. And often, if it is a good idea, someone else will also do it in the mainstream and suddenly a fork realizes that the feature they wanted is now available in the primary project.
Most of the time they realize that it’s more productive to work with the project rather than forking it.
In any case Kolab encourages people to do their own things if they want. But they do encourage coordination and communication so things can be improved for everyone. So they explicitly make no effort to discourage people from forking it. “…we don’t prevent this legally or otherwise simply because we don’t have any intention of preventing it,” says Greve.
Balance between innovation, development and stability
Kolab doesn’t just sit on the technologies that it has developed and keep things in maintenance mode for the sake of stability.
According to Greve, “We develop fast and sometimes some features take time to stabilize and our customer wants it when it is stable. At the same time they also want to ensure that they can use it for the next five years without having to worry about another update within the next half year.”
Kolab system delivers that innovation along with uncompromising stability and – an often underestimated aspect – a guaranteed upgrade path for the future.
Why to switch to Kolab?
It’s wonderful to see that Kolab is being developed in pure Open Source sense, but what reasons does it give an enterprise to switch to Kolab?
There are some very obvious benefits of using Kolab solutions – it’s open source, it’s secure, and it’s based in a neutral country.
Georg Greve explains in detail, “From a strategic point of view it’s open source, open standard solution so no lock-in at much better cost effectiveness. It’s very secure and extremely scalable so you can achieve a lot with very limited hardware and infrastructure investment.”
“In one set-up you can get a very elegant load balancing, site reliability, high availability all-in-one set because every single component of the Kolab server in itself is clusterable, monitorable, scalable and replicable. Each component of Kolab server talks to each other over secure network protocols – which also means you can distribute it in ways in your network where you can secure and control the information flow much better with almost any other solution.”
There are many other advantages of using Kolab. One notable benefit is easy integration with almost every other solution because of the way in which Kolab stores information through APIs and libraries. This also makes it a very good thing for backup and recovery because everything is filed on disk which means every backup system in the world is capable of backing up a Kolab server perfectly and you can restore that one file to its location and just rebuild the IMAP index and then you are ready to go.
Once a customer has made a decision to switch to Kolab that customer may need a lot of assistance for a smooth transition. Kolab Systems knows that and thus offers complete migration support to customers.
“We help customers in the planning of the entire deployment – from planning of the migration to testing and actual migration. We train their admins so that they can have their own staff run the new system. In short, we offer the entire realm of services or support that a customer may need,” says Greve.
Kolab is the answer to the NSA, GCHQ spying program
A recently highlighted important reason for switching or moving to Kolab is the privacy and assurance that it offers. Kolab, in every true sense, is a far better solution than the one offered by companies like Lavabit and Silent Circle due to its open source base. As Bruce Schneier and Caspar Bowden have highlighted, the chance of subversion of technology is lowest in Open Source.
People like Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald used services like these, but when the US pushed these service providers they had only two options – either to comply with the order or shut down. These companies chose the latter option as the US law even prohibits such companies from challenging such draconian orders or going public about them. But in either case the loss is their user. Either the provider will comply with the government and lie to its customers that their privacy is intact or shut down and break the communication.
In either case it’s a lose lose situation.
When comparing MyKolab as the hosted platform to any of the above the simple truth is that no US or UK based company can offer such a solution without complying with the government order and lying to their customers that their data is secure. The governments will come after them sooner or later.
Let’s go back and see why those two US-based providers chose to shut down their services. Lavabit founder has made abundantly clear why they shut down their services, but the reason why their competitor chose the same fate is even more worrisome.
Greve opines, “They shut down because they realized that they would be next. Lavabit had the time to shut down when they got the letter from NSA. Lavabit founders realized that there was no way of stopping the NSA from getting their data. So they shut down before NSA reached their server, which was the best option. The NSA did not expect this, I am sure, and consequently took no steps to prevent this from happening. So when Silent Circle saw this they understood that next time the NSA might not send a letter first and give them the choice of shutting down their systems. So they chose to shut down preemptively.”
US has become a very hostile place for privacy
Greve expresses his concern, “What happened to Lavabit was really unsettling. Especially that Ladar Levinson couldn’t even talk about some of what was going on to his lawyer, let alone telling the public. We ought to realize that if he did comply with the order from the NSA none of us would have ever learned about such a request. That makes it a guessing game. Have the other providers truly not been approached by the NSA, or have they complied. It’s deeply disturbing that ultimately we cannot know for certain given the state of legislation in the United States, but apparently also in countries such as Germany.”
That’s where Kolab enters the picture
“We find ourselves in a unique position. Based out of Switzerland which together with Iceland is one of two most free countries in the world in terms of these kinds of surveillance and control of state. So as a technology provider from Switzerland we can’t be compelled to provide any kind of backdoor or special access to the NSA and that’s why we have carefully avoided to be legally affiliated to the United States or other Five Eyes countries,” explains Greve.
Greve says that “privacy is not something you should apologize for or hide; privacy should be the default. Switzerland is one of the few places in the world that actually allows privacy and protects it. Unlike the US, there is no warrant less access. Here you always have to have a Swiss judge to approve, according to Swiss law, that this request is legitimate and it doesn’t violates the Swiss law. The law states clearly that the crime must be severe, evidence must be concrete and the chance of prosecuting it without getting access must be small for a judge to approve this kind of request. And that decision is always made transparent in anonymized form.”
There was a huge spying scandal in Switzerland back in 80s-90s. After that they dismantled the entire secret service and now there is no one left except for some 50 people who have absolutely no mandate on doing anything inside Switzerland. Now there is a very tightly controlled government body now which can only request access when a judge tells them to do and everything is recorded for transparency. As anywhere, there are political forces trying to weaken that protection for privacy, but the political debate is ongoing.
“So privacy is extremely valuable and strong here. If you run a server in Switzerland you have a big advantage – the lawful interception request from the government will come for an actual crime under Swiss law. And then we get to decide to comply or not with that order because we always apply a four eyes principle before agreeing to provide data to the authorities,” Greve says.
Even when access is requested there is a big difference between the US and Switzerland. If, as mentioned above, there is a request for data based on concrete evidence for crime, then Kolab would have to comply too. “…but even where we have to comply we can at least talk about it because unlike in the US here there is no law that compels you to eternal silence. All the US tech providers are virtually compelled by the law to lie, which is insane.”
Switzerland as a refugee camp
Greve admits that, “It’s an unbearable situation for society in my opinion.” It’s not healthy when users can’t find privacy in their own country and have to go abroad.
“When we set up this service it wasn’t something we were expecting. We thought people would be more concerned about commercial spying through the ‘you’re our product’ providers such as Google, Apple or Microsoft. But now we find ourselves with many users who are concerned about their own government. And there is a lot of interest in this kind of service. And it’s precisely the Swiss basis that makes it a sustainable choice.”
What if Switzerland turns rogue
Though there are less chances of Switzerland turning into a surveillance state like the US, Kolab is designed for such a situation. Unlike Lavabit or Silent Circle, a shutdown won’t lock users out of their own data or disrupt communication.
“One unique property of MyKolab is that actually it has its own escape plan built in. If Switzerland changes its law and becomes an oppressive regime, everyone could take their data along with the software that runs it and set up the service somewhere else or have a third party do it for them. This is something you can’t do with Lavabit or Silent Circle because they are proprietary providers. If it was Kolab those users could have just taken the Kolab with them even if the service provider shut down. If you have the skills you can take your server and put at your own place unless you find someone who you can trust. If you don’t you can work with someone who does and who has your trust. If you want to just flee with your data, you can. MyKolab finances the development of Kolab in a manner that it also opens that escape hatch wider and wider and giving people more power over themselves.”
People have started migrating to a freer land
MyKolab is definitely a much better solution than closed source services like Lavabit and people have started to realize that. They are experiencing a surge in traffic after the shutdown.
“Yes, we see a lot of refugees from those services coming over to us,” said Greve.
But can email still be secure?
After the disclosure by Snowden, people have started asking the question whether emails are secure anymore.
Greve explains, “People say that email is fundamentally screwed and you can’t trust anyone and there is some truth in it, but the actual truth is you can encrypt things fairly well. You have to do it right, set things up in the right way to do so. It’s not impossible to create a fairly robust transmission even of unsigned email, but most servers are not configured to use this. It’s the receiving server that determines the level of security and from a user perspective its not clear what the receiving server actually supports. So that’s a problem. So I don’t quite know that when I send this email to you whether your server is set up in that way.”
“If you are sending messages from a secure server to a Hotmail account it’s more or less sending it into the NSA database. So once the email leaves the trustworthy jurisdiction it’s privacy value is limited and you don’t have the full protection of privacy anymore. However if two users communicate within Switzerland that communication is fairly secure. If there are two Kolab users then it is extremely secure as the email will never hit the Internet. It’s never on the Internet so no one can spy.”
Noted free software journalist and legal expert Pamela Jones has publicly migrated herself to MyKolab and there are many more who are making the switch. For obvious reasons Kolab can’t disclose who are their clients, but Greve says “we see lawyers, journalists, doctors join the MyKolab service to protect their client privilege and professional integrity. And we know the software itself is used by at least one company in the Fortune 100.”
The overall impression that we get after this interaction is that there are still companies and countries which strongly believe in privacy and protect it. Kolab Systems, due to use of Free Software and based out of a freer country offer extremely secure services – much more secure than Lavabit and Silent Circle. Concerned users are already migrating to it.
It’s fortunate, and unfortunate at the same time, that once again a free country and a free software company has come forward to offer privacy and freedom to those who desire it and but can’t find in the land of the which was once free.
God bless America!