Encrypted email service thought used by Snowden shuts down

SAN FRANCISCO Fri Aug 9, 2013 2:39am EDT

1 of 2. A screen grab taken from the main page of Lavabit.com website on August 9, 2013 shows a letter posted by Lavabit LLC owner Ladar Levison. Lavabit, an encrypted email service believed to have been used by American fugitive Edward Snowden, shut down abruptly on Thursday amid a legal fight that appeared to involve U.S. government attempts to win access to customer information.

Credit: Reuters/Lavabit.com

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - An encrypted email service believed to have been used by American fugitive Edward Snowden shut down abruptly on Thursday amid a legal fight that appeared to involve U.S. government attempts to win access to customer information.

"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," Lavabit LLC owner Ladar Levison wrote in a letter that was posted on the Texas-based company's website on Thursday.

Levison said he has decided to "suspend operations" but was barred from discussing the events over the past six weeks that led to his decision.

That matches the period since Snowden went public as the source of media reports detailing secret electronic spying operations by the U.S. National Security Agency.

"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," Levison wrote.

The U.S. Department of Justice had no immediate comment.

Later on Thursday, an executive with a better-known provider of secure email said his company had also shut down that service. Jon Callas, co-founder of Silent Circle Inc, said on Twitter and in a blog post that Silent Circle had ended Silent Mail.

"We see the writing 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," Callas wrote on a blog addressed to customers.

Silent Circle, co-founded by the PGP cryptography inventor Phil Zimmermann, will continue to offer secure texting and secure phone calls, but email is harder to keep truly private, Callas wrote. He and company representatives didn't immediately respond to interview requests.

At a Moscow news conference four weeks ago, a Human Rights Watch representative said she had been contacted by Snowden from a Lavabit email address, according to news website GlobalPost.com.

Use of effective encryption by regular email users is rare. Some of Snowden's leaked documents show that Google Inc, Microsoft Corp and other large providers have been compelled to help intelligence authorities gather email and other data on their users.

The big providers and other companies typically offer encryption but said they cooperate with legal requests, including those by intelligence officials.

'PRETTY EXTRAORDINARY'

Lavabit was something of an outlier, in part because it had said email was encrypted on its servers and could only be accessed with the user's password.

Snowden has been charged with espionage but was granted asylum by Russia, prompting U.S. President Barack Obama to scrap a planned meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Lavabit's statement suggested a gag order was in place, and lawyers said that could accompany any one of a wide range of demands for information. The government could be seeking unencrypted versions of Snowden's email correspondence, other information about him, the technical means to decrypt his future emails or those of other customers, or basic information on all of Lavabit's hundreds of thousands of users.

It is rare and perhaps unprecedented for a legitimate U.S. business to shut down rather than comply with a government request for information, said Kurt Opsahl, an attorney with the Electronic Freedom Foundation, a civil liberties group in San Francisco that is not involved in the case.

"This is a pretty extraordinary thing," Opsahl said. "I'm not aware of another case where a service provider elected to shut down under these kinds of circumstances."

Levison said the company has started preparing the paperwork needed to fight in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is based in Richmond, Virginia. He could not be reached for comment.

"All of this tells us the same lesson: almost nothing we do on the Internet can be protected from government prying and spying," said Michael Ratner, a U.S. lawyer who has worked for anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, a Snowden ally. "To talk privately, meetings will need to take place in large parks with plenty of tree cover."

(Additional reporting by David Ingram in Washington; Editing by Tiffany Wu, Eric Walsh and Lisa Shumaker)

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Comments (11)
Laster wrote:
Nice. Thanks Keith. Thanks Eric.

Aug 08, 2013 10:17pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Reuters1945 wrote:
“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”

-Lavabit LLC owner Ladar Levison

“Levison said he has decided to “suspend operations” but was barred from discussing the events over the past six weeks that led to his decision.”

Older readers of Reuters will doubtless remember the poignant words:

“The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time”.

It is a remark attributed to British statesman Sir Edward Grey on the eve of the First World War.

While I try at all times to keep my composure and refrain from wearing my Heart on my sleeve, I must confess a certain amount of long buried emotion welled up in me tonight as I read Ladar Levison’s words.

Indeed, what have we come to as a Nation, as a Proud people descended from those amazingly courageous Founding Fathers of two hundred years ago, when an American is forced to shutter his hard built business rather than comply with demands made by his government which he perceives to be both illegal and contrary to all the historic statutes of the United States Constitution.

How did we arrive at this tragic point where our government has been quite literally hijacked by rogue forces in Washington, DC who believe they are above the Law and not bound by the US Constitution which so many untold generations of Americans have fought to defend with their lives and last precious drop of blood and their Sacred Honor.

Down through the long echoing corridors of time, throughout our history, our US Constitution was our Guiding Light, our Safety net in times of doubt, our life preserver at such moments when the Ship of State was in danger of capsizing and going under.

The fault is not to be found in America as a Nation but in the fact that we as Americans were not sufficiently vigilant as President Dwight D. Eisenhower strongly warned us to be, more than half a century ago, that dark forces working behind the scenes could easily seize the reigns of Power in our proud Nation.

Everything that ever brave and ever wise General, (who led us to Victory in WW II), had predicted, while he was alive, has come to pass.

Our nation is truly being run by individuals who are convinced they are above the Laws of the Land and believe they can defecate on our Sacred Constitution and Bill of Rights, almost daily, with total impunity.

It is well known that this present government already has “contingency”
plans in place to deal with the American populace should they one day open their windows wide, lean out and scream from the top of their lungs:

“I’m mad as Hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

Can we yet roll back this tide of an out of control government that will one day devour us all and cast aside all that our Republic stands for in the name of ostensibly “knowing what is best for us”.

Hopefully, there will still be another American Presidential Election.

Though it may seem far off, more is the pity, in some ways that event is already being created right now.

Will we see a few truly honest and brave American Patriots, in either political party, look in the mirror and make that fateful decision that there comes a time in one’s life when one cannot simply continue to “go along to get along”.

When an American is forced to close down an honest, hard built business rather than become “complicit in crimes against the American people” then you know we have reached a turning point in American History.

We thought we had finally found that true American Patriot in Mr.Obama but we were wrong and that includes me most of all.

But I was ever the eternal optimist, the person who never says die and always believes in Miracles and by that I mean the appearance of an “Abraham Lincoln”, in that fateful and critical hour when the destiny of a great Republic is on the line and in mortal danger.

Please, oh please tell me there is yet reason to hope.

Not the phony bill of goods “Hope” we were fed in the last two elections but the real deal. The real thing.

The type of hope that can only be delivered to the American people by a human being of the likes of an Abraham Lincoln, the “rail splitter”, who never needed high priced speech writers to pen his words and speeches for him and high tech teleprompters from which to read other people’s words whilst pretending they were his words.

May God in Heaven favor America just once more with a man like Abraham Lincoln.

Though we may not deserve it, our Sacred Republic and all its future generations of brave, well meaning Americans, as far as the eye can see, deserve that Leader.

A Leader cast from the mold of that great Martyr, President Lincoln, who started out as a simple Prairie lawyer, who gave his all to preserve our Nation and the Constitution and Bill of Rights on which it was founded.

Let us bow our collective heads- and hope.

It is what a man like Abraham Lincoln would have wished us to do. Let us not disappoint him.

Aug 09, 2013 2:01am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Reuters1945, that was very eloquently put… Thank you.

Aug 09, 2013 3:24am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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