Lavabit announced today that it would shut down its encrypted email service rather than “become complicit in crimes against the American people.” Lavabit did not say what it had been asked to do, only that it was legally prohibited from sharing the events leading to its decision.
Lavabit was an email provider, apparently used by Edward Snowden along with other privacy sensitive users, with an avowed mission to offer an “e-mail service that never sacrifices privacy for profits” and promised to “only release private information if legally compelled by the courts in accordance with the United States Constitution.” It backed up this claim by encrypting all emails on Lavabit servers such that Lavabit did not have the ability to access a user's email (Lavabit’s white paper), at least without that user's passphrase, which the email provider did not store.
Given the impressive powers of the government to obtain emails and records from service providers, both with and without legal authority, it is encouraging to see service providers take steps to limit their ability to access user data, as Lavabit had done.
But now it’s gone. Here is Lavabit's statement in full:
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.
Owner and Operator, Lavabit LLC
Defending the constitution is expensive! Help us by donating to the Lavabit Legal Defense Fund here.
It’s rare to see an email provider choose to go out of business rather than compromise its values. It must have been a hard decision for Ladar Levison, but he remained true to his promise to put privacy before profits. It was also hard on the users, some of whom lost access to email not available elsewhere.
Lavabit's ominous note and the lack of information about this case is especially concerning for users of large communication service providers like Facebook and Google that may well have been subject to similar pressure, and we hope they will continue to fight for the user in the face of government demands, even if not recognized for years. Already, Lavabit's note has led to Silent Circle dropping its email service, saying "We see the writing [on] the wall, and we have decided that it is best for us to shut down Silent Mail now. We have not received subpoenas, warrants, security letters, or anything else by any government, and this is why we are acting now."
Moving forward, we need more transparency so the public can know and understand what led to a ten-year-old business closing its doors and a new start-up abandoning a business opportunity. Hopefully Congress will get concerned, especially when there are American jobs at stake.
Lavabit’s post indicates that there was a gag order, and that there is an ongoing appeal before the Fourth Circuit. We call on the government and the courts to unseal enough of the docket to allow, at a minimum, the public to know the legal authority asserted, both for the gag and the substance, and give Lavabit the breathing room to participate in the vibrant and critical public debates on the extent of email privacy in an age of warrantless bulk surveillance by the NSA.