An e-mail service it appeared NSA leaker Edward Snowden had been using from a Moscow airport was shut down suddenly Thursday. Lavabit’s owner Ladar Levison, whose pitch to users was better security and noncompliance with requests by the government to turn over data, implied in a letter to users the reason for the shuttering was just such a request:
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.
It sounds like Levison is going forward with legal action in hopes of resurrecting Lavabit and revealing some of NSA’s methods. Other companies have sought more transparency from NSA, and permission to reveal communications with the government, but to no avail, and none has ever shut down rather than comply:
Several technology companies that participate in the National Security Agency’s surveillance dragnets have filed legal requests to lift the secrecy restrictions that prevent them from explaining to their customers precisely what it is that they provide to the powerful intelligence service – either wittingly or due to a court order. Yahoo has sued for the disclosure of some of those court orders.
The presiding judge of the secret court that issues such orders, known as the Fisa court, has indicated to the Justice Department that he expects declassification in the Yahoo case. The department agreed last week to a review that will last into September about the issues surrounding the release of that information.
I understand national security concerns, but it seems quite disturbing that all of these companies, with whom we trust so much of our personal information, are perhaps routinely compliant with orders from the government whose reach we don’t understand, whose authorizations we can never see, and about which the companies can never inform us, even if they shut down their otherwise legally operating businesses in this free country. I assume it has to do with Levison’s legal plans, but I’ve kind of wondered why a market underdog company with a owner who’s a conscientious objector doesn’t just go all libertarian barbaric yawp and publish every request the government sends them, in full. There’d certainly be harsh legal consequences, but they’d presumably be meted out in the light of day, offering the company plenty of publicity and the owner a chance to offer increased transparency to a public who’d be pretty friendly to it. I’m probably overestimating the public’s response, and how much it’d keep the feds in check, but polling seems to indicate if this stuff were revealed by a much cleaner Snowden-type who faced the music stateside, they’d appreciate it.
BREAKING LAVABIT NEWS: the Justice Department tells me it has no comment. Sighing eternally into my drink
— Spencer Ackerman (@attackerman) August 8, 2013