Friday, August 09, 2013

Lavabit Confronts "Complicit or Close?" Levison Closes

August 9, 2013, 3:30 a.m.

This series includes:"Lavabit Confronts 'Complicit or Close?' Levison Closes," August 9, 2013; "A Simple Matter to Drag People Along," August 6, 2013; "The Future of Surveillance and How to Stop It," August 4, 2013; "Surveillance: Differences of Degree and of Kind," July 3, 2013; "Shooting the Messenger; Should Government Be Able to Keep Its Abuses Secret?," June 11, 2013; "From Zazi to Stasi; Trusting a Government That Doesn't Trust You," June 9, 2013; "Law's Losing Race With Technology," June 7, 2013.

We don't know much about the extent to which American companies have been complicit in the NSA's spying on American citizens. They are legally prevented from telling us, and have requested permission from the government to do so (but have consistently been denied their requests). Yesterday the owner of one such company, confronted with, as he put it, the choice "to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit," chose the latter. Here is the full text of his letter, posted on, followed by some relevant stories and hundreds of comments. Hopefully, this courageous -- and costly -- decision of his, and the worldwide interest in, and support of, his case will help to bring these issues to a rational, and constitutional, conclusion. -- N.J. [Photo credit: Ladar Levison's Facebook page photo]

Letter to Customers from Lavabit Owner Ladar Levison

My Fellow Users,

I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit. After significant soul searching, I have decided to suspend operations. I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision. I cannot. I feel you deserve to know what’s going on--the first amendment is supposed to guarantee me the freedom to speak out in situations like this. Unfortunately, Congress has passed laws that say otherwise. As things currently stand, I cannot share my experiences over the last six weeks, even though I have twice made the appropriate requests.

What’s going to happen now? We’ve already started preparing the paperwork needed to continue to fight for the Constitution in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. A favorable decision would allow me resurrect Lavabit as an American company.

This experience has taught me one very important lesson: without congressional action or a strong judicial precedent, I would _strongly_ recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States.

Ladar Levison
Owner and Operator, Lavabit LLC

Defending the constitution is expensive! Help us by donating to the Lavabit Legal Defense Fund here.
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First reported here, Xeni Jardin, "Lavabit, Email Service Snowden Reportedly Used, Abruptly Shuts Down," Boing Boing, August 8, 2013, The Guardian added a good bit to the story: "The email service reportedly used by surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden abruptly shut down on Thursday [Aug. 8] after its owner cryptically announced his refusal to become 'complicit in crimes against the American people.' Lavabit, an email service that boasted of its security features and claimed 350,000 customers, is no more, apparently after rejecting a court order for cooperation with the US government to participate in surveillance on its customers. It is the first such company known to have shuttered rather than comply with government surveillance." Spencer Ackerman, "Lavabit email service abruptly shut down citing government interference," The Guardian, August 9, 2013.

Comments on the Guardian's story, almost exclusively supportive, increased another couple of hundred while I wrote this. You can go directly to them here.

The New York Times, also had a report, including Silent Circle's voluntary shut down: "A Texas-based company called Lavabit, which was reportedly used by Edward J. Snowden, announced its suspension Thursday afternoon, citing concerns about secret government court orders. By evening, Silent Circle, a Maryland-based firm that counts heads of state among its customers, said it was following Lavabit’s lead and shutting its e-mail service as a protective measure. Taken together, the closures signal that e-mails, even if they are encrypted, can be accessed by government authorities and that the only way to prevent turning over the data is to obliterate the servers that the data sits on." Somini Sengupta, "Two Providers of Secure E-Mail Shut Down," New York Times/Bits, August 8, 2013.

The Washington Post reports, among other things, that the NSA's invasion of formerly secure cloud services could cost American business as much as $35 billion. (Of course, Amazon's Bezos, now the owner of the Washington Post, is the owner of one of the nation's largest cloud service providers.)

"Silent Circle’s business is based on promising absolute confidentiality to its clients. 'There are some very high profile, highly targeted groups of people' among the firm’s customers, says Silent Circle CEO Mike Janke. 'We felt we were going to be targeted, without a doubt. We see the writing the wall, and we have decided that it is best for us to shut down Silent Mail now,' the company wrote in a Thursday blog post. 'We have not received subpoenas, warrants, security letters, or anything else by any government, and this is why we are acting now.' . . . One recent estimate suggested that U.S. companies could lose as much as $35 billion as fears of NSA surveillance lead foreign companies to cancel their contracts with U.S. cloud service providers." Timothy B. Lee, "Another e-mail service shuts down over government spying concerns," Washington Post, August 9, 2013.

The Wall Street Journal's brief story notes that "In 2011, a telecom company fought the Federal Bureau of Investigation in court over a request for customer records. That same year,, a Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Internet provider, also fought a court order on a WikiLeaks supporter." Danny Yadron, " Snowden’s Email Service Shuts; SnowdenMail is No More," Wall Street Journal,. August 8, 2013.

In addition to which, the New York Times added its editorial voice today to criticism of the NSA's spying on Americans generally: "Apparently no espionage tool that Congress gives the National Security Agency is big enough or intrusive enough to satisfy the agency’s inexhaustible appetite . . .. Time and again, the N.S.A. has pushed past the limits that lawmakers thought they had imposed . . . guaranteed by the Constitution. . . . [I]it copies virtually all overseas messages . . . then scans them to see if they contain any references [that] might have a link to terrorists. That could very well include . . . family members expressing fears of a terror attack. Or messages between an editor and a reporter who is covering international security issues. Or the privileged conversation between a lawyer and a client who is being investigated. Data collection on this scale goes far beyond what Congress authorized . . .. [T]his practice . . . is unquestionably the bulk collection of American communications . . .. Despite President Obama’s claim this week that 'there is no spying on Americans,' the evidence shows that such spying is greater than the public ever knew." Editorial Board, "Breaking Through Limits on Spying," New York Times, August 9, 2013, p. A18.

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