Two secure e-mail services, Lavabit and Silent Mail, were closed down this week in what many observers called fall-out from the Edward Snowden leaks about NSA spying on communications.
“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,” the company’s owner, Ladar Levison, said on its website.
Snowden, who has been granted temporary asylum in Russia after leaking details of NSA surveillance to The Washington Post and The Guardian earlier this year, used a Lavabit e-mail address while communicating from Moscow airport.
Levison said he had decided to suspend operations “after significant soul searching” but declined to give detailed reasons. “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.”
He said he had begun preparing for litigation in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. “A favorable decision would allow me to 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.”
Separately, Jon Callas, CTO and co-founder of Silent Circle, said the company had decided to shut down Silent Mail. “We see the writing on the wall,” he said. “We have not received subpoenas, warrants, security letters, or anything else by any government, and this is why we are acting now.”
Callas said the company had been debating the move for weeks. “We’d considered phasing the service out, continuing service for existing customers, and a variety of other things up until today. It is always better to be safe than sorry, and with your safety we decided that the worst decision is always no decision.”
He said Silent Phone and Silent Text, along with Silent Eyes, were end-to-end secure. “We don’t have the encrypted data and we don’t collect metadata about your conversations. They’re continuing as they have been. We are still working on innovative ways to do truly secure communications. Silent Mail was a good idea at the time, and that time is past.”
Writing on Wired.com, Kevin Poulsen said of Lavabit’s decision: “Reading between the lines, it’s reasonable to assume Levison has been fighting either a National Security Letter seeking customer information — which comes by default with a gag order — or a full-blown search or eavesdropping warrant. Court records show that, in June, Lavabit complied with a routine search warrant targeting a child pornography suspect in a federal case in Maryland. That suggests that Levison isn’t a privacy absolutist. Whatever compelled him to shut down now must have been exceptional.”
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