Lavabit, the highly encrypted email service thought to have been used by US fugitive Edward Snowden, shut down abruptly on Thursday.
According to GlobalPost.com, Snowden had contacted a Human Rights Watch representative from a Lavabit email address during his time in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. He was stranded at the airport for several weeks while awaiting a decision on temporary asylum.
Ladar Levison, owner of Lavabit LLC posted a letter on the company’s website on Thursday, explaining his decision to “suspend operations”.
“I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people, or walk away from nearly 10 years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit,” Levison wrote.
Kurt Opsahl, a lawyer with the Electronic Freedom Foundation, described the shutdown as “pretty extraordinary”, saying: “It is rare and perhaps unprecedented for a legitimate US business to shut down rather than comply with a government request for information.”
“I’m not aware of another case where a service provider elected to shut down under these kinds of circumstances,” added Opsahl.
The statement on the Lavabit website suggested that a gag order was in place, with Levison apparently being barred from discussing the events over the six weeks leading to his decision. He said that the company has started preparing the paperwork needed to fight in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Virginia.
Snowden, who has been charged with espionage by US authorities, was granted temporary asylum in Russia on August 1. A week later, US President Barack Obama cancelled a scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Some of the documents he leaked to the media showed that large providers such as Google and Microsoft have been obliged to assist intelligence authorities in gathering email information and other data from their users.
“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,” Lavabit’s owner Levison wrote.
Michael Ratner, a US lawyer with ties to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, which is a strong ally of Snowden, also spoke of a lack of privacy and protection surrounding online activity. “All of this tells us the same lesson: almost nothing we do on the internet can be protected from government prying and spying,” he said. “To talk privately, meetings will need to take place in large parks with plenty of tree cover.”
In a preemptive move late on Thursday, Jon Callas, co-founder of Silent Circle Inc, said his company had also shut down its secure email service: “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 any subpoenas, warrants, security letters, or anything else by any government, and this is why we are acting now,” Callas explained in a blog addressed to Silent Circle customers. They are apparently continuing to run their texting and secure phone call services.
The US Department of Justice had made no comment on the matter by Thursday afternoon.
Full statement of Lavabit’s 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 10 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
Originally posted on lavabit.com