Why Ladar Levison Shuttered Encrypted Email Service Lavabit In The Face Of Government Pressure

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Today Ladar Levison, owner of the now-shuttered Lavabit email service, spoke to Democracy Now about his decision to close his company and the government pressure that led to that choice. Along the way, he touched on Edward Snowden and the limits of what he is allowed to say in public.

Lavabit provided an encrypted email service for its users, designed so that even Levison, who owned it, could not access the information of his users. After it became known, or perhaps heavily hinted, that NSA document leaker Snowden used the service, it fell under the sharp eye of the government. They, I feel safe in stating, wanted his digital missives.

Levison shuttered the service. It isn’t precisely clear what the shutdown procedure was, but the reasons are somewhat plain:

I felt that in the end I had to pick between the lesser of two evils and that shutting down the service, if it was no longer secure, was the better option. It was, in effect, the lesser of the two evils.

Levison didn’t want to run an encrypted service — the implication of which is complete privacy — that was not secure. What directly follows from that is that government pressure would have forced Lavabit to compromise its integrity and the privacy of its users. He makes that point again, later, but in a fashion that perfectly describes how little he is allowed to say:

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. You know, obviously, I can’t speak to the details of any specific case, but—I’ll just leave it at that.

Or, in non-terrified-speak, Levison just said that he did not want to turn over private information, and that, in some fashion, he might have had to. But no specifics! Lest what, exactly? Levison’s lawyer was succinct, stating that his client has to “watch every word he says when he’s talking to the press, for fear of being imprisoned.” That legal aid, Jesse Binnall, went on to point out that the First Amendment is precisely what is supposed to protect his client in situations like this. But it does not given current law. I’d argue that such restrictions are in fact unconstitutional, but as I’m not a federal judge, it doesn’t matter much.

Levison indicated in his discussion with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman and Aaron Mate that while “Lavabit wasn’t the first service provider to receive a government request,” which was to be expected, it was also not the first “service provider to fight it.” This is encouraging. That behind closed doors people are retaining their spine is somewhat comforting.

Late in the interview, Levison said that he has “a lot of respect for [Edward] Snowden, because he gave up his entire life [...] so that he could speak out.” He notes that his own efforts have not yet reached that point. Snowden, from the other side, told the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald that he found the shuttering of Lavabit by Levison to be “inspiring.”

What is Levison’s takeaway from the ordeal? He’s surprisingly candid:

[T]here’s information that I can’t even share with my lawyer, let alone with the American public. So if we’re talking about secrecy, you know, it’s really been taken to the extreme. And I think it’s really being used by the current administration to cover up tactics that they may be ashamed of.

I’d just state in closing that there has been quite a bit of talk about talking. That we need to have a conversation. A national discourse! But when the key actors who are part of the actual tension are muzzled as Levison has been, we can have no such confab. This makes such talking points from leaders enforcing the very rules that have silenced Mr. Levison hypocritical in that they are most certainly saying one thing and doing another. They claim to want a dialogue, but they refuse to provide the details needed to have that dialogue. So we can’t move forward, and it is their fault.

The stifling of Levison is brilliant testimony to how broken the current system is. His inability to speak encapsulates precisely what those who worry about government overreach are attempting to describe. No misdeeds? Lavabit should not be dead, and yet it is. That’s one, for starters.

Top Image Credit: Bogdan Suditu