Lavabit, the secure email service used by Edward Snowden, shuts down under pressure

August 8, 2013
August 8, 2013

The secure email service said to be used by Edward Snowden has abruptly shut down.

“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,” Ladar Levison, the company’s head, wrote in a letter posted on the site. “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.”

Lavabit uses encryption to prevent emails from being read by anyone but the sender and intended recipient. Snowden was revealed to be using it when a representative from Human Rights Watch posted a message (registration required) believed to be from Snowden along with an email address, edsnowden@lavabit.com.

It’s not clear what prompted Lavabit to shut down. It had suspended service, supposedly for technical reasons, for some 24 hours before the announcement was posted, leading to a mix of consternation and annoyance among its users on Twitter.

Levison couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. But from his letter, reproduced below, it’s not too hard to speculate that he was asked by the US government to provide information from Lavabit’s servers about one or more of its users:

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.

Sincerely,
Ladar Levison
Owner and Operator, Lavabit LLC

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