Well, this was a bit of mysterious news today. Apparently, the owner of Lavabit – the same email service reportedly used by NSA leaker Edward Snowden to contact human rights groups last month – has decided to shut down its operations in order to avoid becoming “complicit in crimes against the American people.” The message was cryptic but hinted the company has been battling legal issues over the privacy of its users’ data, leading many to speculate (without proof) that it’s connected to Snowden.
Here’s the message owner Ladar Levison posted at the home page of the Lavabit website earlier.
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
While intentionally vague on the details, citing laws passed by Congress that prevent it from sharing what led to its decision, Lavabit gives us a glimpse into some sort of legal battle brewing behind the scenes. We’re left to read between the lines on the rest. It also concludes with, “Defending the constitution is expensive! Help us by donating to the Lavabit Legal Defense Fund here.”
But it is not known whether or not Lavabit’s apparent legal issues have anything to do with Snowden. The only thing we do know where Snowden is concerned is that he was reportedly one of its users.
Before he received temporary asylum, Edward Snowden met in July with human rights groups while still stranded in the transit zone of Russia’s Sheremetyevo airport. The former NSA contractor used the personal Lavabit email address “firstname.lastname@example.org” to send the invitation to those groups for that event, a detail that was widely reported to the public at the time.
Business Insider published this post last month on How Edward Snowden Sends His Ultra-Sensitive Emails. It described why the founders, strong privacy advocates, decided to launch Lavabit in 2004 as an alternative to Gmail.
“At the time, Lavabit’s founders felt Gmail was a great service but that Google was actively violating the privacy of its users by displaying ads related to keywords in their e-mail,” says the Lavabit official website.
So a few Texas programmers with a self-described “maniacal level of dedication” and “experience building mission critical systems” started a company called Nerdshack LLC, which then changed to Lavabit in 2005.
Google’s propensity to scan emails for key words and then market that data to advertisers was a clear violation of privacy to the Lavabit founders.
What seems most important here is that the company is taking a strong stance on the privacy of its users’ information, regardless of whose it may be. It will be interesting to watch if it comes back into operation.
Legal Insurrection has reached out to a few members of Congress who have been outspoken on the issues of NSA surveillance/privacy and about Edward Snowden to see if they had any comment or additional information on this matter, but we’ve not yet heard back. We’ll update this post if/when we do.