Ladar Levison, the founder of encrypted email service Lavabit, abruptly shut down the service in August after pressure from the government to hand over user information.  Levison said at the time that the move was necessary in order to avoid becoming “complicit in crimes against the American people.”

Levison had been unable to comment much about the situation because he was legally prohibited from doing so. Since then, more has been made public in recent weeks after some of the documents in the case have been unsealed.  Those alone revealed the lengths to which Levison went to try and get around the government’s demands, including fighting them with an ultra-tiny font (as The Verge put it).

In a previous interview, Levison briefly elaborated that he had in the past complied with warrants on routine law enforcement requests.  But the circumstances surrounding the incident that finally prompted him to make the drastic decision to shut down his service were different.

In this recent interview with CNET, Levison discussed exactly why he felt he had no choice other than to shut down the encrypted email service.

When I finally lost my fight in court and I had to turn over the keys, I had decided long before that if that ever happened and I wasn’t able to tell people that it was happening, and as a result build the public’s support I needed to change the law, then the only ethical choice for me was to shut down.  So the decision had already been made and it was just simply the act of turning over the keys that prompted me to take those steps and finally shut down the service.

The interviewer, Declan McCullagh, asks for clarification: “When you say keys, do you mean the master encryption keys, the SSL keys for web traffic?”

Levison’s response is quite revealing.

I mean the private keys that were used for SSL. Because when I turned those over, I was effectively turning over control of my network to the federal government.  They could see everything coming in and out of my network and they could read the plain text.  They could see passwords, they could see email content, they could intercept credit card transactions, everything that was at all sensitive.  And I had effectively lost the ability to control my own network, and as a network administrator, that just was a completely untenable position.

Last week, the ACLU said in court filings that the US government’s demand had “fatally undermined” Lavabit, reported The Guardian.

The ACLU has filed a “friend of the court” briefing in defence of Lavabit and its founder, Ladar Levison, who faces contempt of court charges after his decision to close down his service rather than co-operate with US authorities.

ACLU lawyer Catherine Crump said the government’s “unreasonably burdensome” demands “fundamentally destroyed the company as a whole”.

“Lavabit’s business was predicated on offering a secure email service, and no company could possible tell its clients that it offers a secure service if its keys have been handed over to the government,” Crump said.

We might expect to see more in the future though, after this recent announcement of The Dark Mail Alliance – founded by Silent Circle & Lavabit.

Watch the full interview with Levison from CNET.


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