Plenty of people use encrypted email services to protect their identities and information online. But, that could all be coming to an end soon for many folks because the man behind the most popular free email encryption technology out there is going broke.
German Werner Koch created the Gnu Privacy Guard encryption software in 1997 and now it's the technology behind popular encrypted email services used by journalists, activists and even Edward Snowden such as GPGTools, Enigmail and GPG4Win. Even though tons of people use these programs around the world, Koch likely can't afford to keep his software updated and effective much longer. That's because he's almost single-handedly been providing updates and patches for the program since he created it with very little funding.
Koch's program is free and the code is open source, which makes it easy for other developers to use the software and verify that there aren't any government backdoors. He would like to generate enough money to pay himself and hire a programmer, but the odds don't look good.
In December, he launched a fundraising campaign that has garnered about $43,000 to date — far short of his goal of $137,000 — which would allow him to pay himself a decent salary and hire a full-time developer.
He's received grants and donations in the past, but not nearly enough to keep GPG running in the long run. Koch has a wife and daughter and has only made about $25,000 a year for more than a decade despite operating this critical software. He is now considering leaving the project to enter the private sector where he can make much more money.
Koch thought about quitting a few years ago, but the Edward Snowden situation prompted him to stick it out. Sadly, Koch's latest fundraising campaign only earned him about $21,000.
But when I asked him what he will do when the current batch of money runs out, he shrugged and said he prefers not to think about it. "I'm very glad that there is money for the next three months," Koch said. "Really I am better at programming than this business stuff."
Koch isn't the only security professional struggling to generate enough money to keep his technology running, either. The email services that use his software are also having trouble finding funding. GPGTools recently started charging users a small fee to cover some operating costs, and Koch runs the GPG4Win service himself.
The programs are also underfunded. Enigmail is maintained by two developers in their spare time. Both have other full-time jobs. Enigmail's lead developer, Patrick Brunschwig, told me that Enigmail receives about $1,000 a year in donations — just enough to keep the website online.
Unfortunately, many of the tools that we rely on to keep our computers, gadgets and information safe are underfunded. That's a big problem that could result in the loss of many important security tools like GPG.