Late last week, we reported that Ladar Levison, the founder of encrypted email service provider Lavabit, abruptly shut down his service without notice, leaving only a cryptic message for users and visitors to the company’s website as to the reasons behind his decision.
While Levison explained little in that notice, he did say enough to leave readers with the impression that he was engaged in a legal battle with the US government over a request to hand over user data.
The notice caught the attention of many because Lavabit was also the same service used by NSA leaker Edward Snowden last month to communicate with human rights groups, a detail that was widely reported at the time. While that detail sparked widespread speculation, it is not known however if Levison’s decision to shut down Lavabit had any connection to Snowden.
Levison says he faces criminal sanctions if he discloses what did lead to his decision, but in an interview with DemocracyNow, Lavabit’s owner explains, as best as he’s allowed by law, why he felt he had no other choice but to shut down the encrypted email service.
While Levison confirmed that there was an email account bearing Snowden’s name on Lavabit’s system, he focused instead on the need for Congressional action on determining what the government can do with our private communications.
“I think if the American public knew what our government was doing, they wouldn’t be allowed to do it anymore. Which is why I’m here in DC today speaking to you. My hope is that the media can uncover what’s going on without my assistance and, you know, sort of pressure both Congress and our efforts through the court system to in effect put a cap on what it is the government is entitled to in terms of our private communications.”
As interviewer Amy Goodman asked Levison to describe the Lavabit service, he offered some insight into not only what the service provided, but perhaps a hint at what may have affected his recent decision.
“We offered secure access via high grade encryption and, at least for our paid users, not for our free accounts and I think that’s an important distinction, we offered secure storage, where incoming emails were stored in such a way that they could only be accessed with the user’s password so that even myself couldn’t retrieve those emails. And that’s what we meant by encrypted email. That’s a term that’s sort of been thrown around because there’s so many different standards for encryption. But in our case it was encrypted and secure storage because as a third party I didn’t want to be put in a situation where I had to turn over private information, I just didn’t have it, I didn’t have access to it. And that was sort of, may have been the situation that I was facing. Obviously I can’t speak to the details of any specific case but, I’ll just leave it at that.”
Accompanied by his attorney Jesse Binnall, Levison clearly struggles to tell his story without breaking any laws.
When asked if he has ever complied with other government subpoenas, Levison affirmed that Lavabit has indeed done so. He tries to differentiate the latest situation that led to his decision to shut down, before being interrupted by his attorney.
“We’ve probably had at least two dozen subpoenas over the last ten years, from local sheriff’s offices all the way up to federal courts, and obviously I can’t speak to any particular one, but we’ve always complied with them. I think it’s important to note that I’ve always complied with the law, it’s just in this particular case I felt that complying with the law…”
And it’s at this point that Levison’s attorney interrupts, indicating that his client can only speak philosophically – he can speak only about why his philosophy behind Lavabit would prompt him to make the decision to shut the service down.
Asked if he has received a National Security Letter, both Levison and his attorney quickly responded that he cannot answer that question.
Goodman also asked Levison to comment on another provider’s decision to follow his lead and shutdown one of its products last week, referring to Silent Circle’s closure of its encrypted email service.
Levison’s attorney fielded that response.
“I think it’s best to kind of avoid that topic unfortunately, but I think it is fair to say that Silent Circle was probably in a very different situation than Lavabit was, which is probably why they took the steps that they did, which I think were admirable.”
Following that answer though, Levison cryptically elaborated that he didn’t feel that Lavabit had any other choice but to shut down without notice and said he’d have to leave it to the listeners to understand why.
The end of DemocracyNow’s interview was rather revealing, and solidified previous statements from Lavabit’s owner. When asked if Americans should just assume our emails are being read, Levison responded, “I think you should assume any communication that is electronic is being monitored.”
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