Feds Threaten To Arrest Lavabit Founder: Either You Help Us Spy on People or You're a Criminal
August 19, 2013
TechDirt & Joe Mullin / Ars Techica & Democracy Now!
Ladar Levison took 10 years -- most of his adult life -- to build his company. So shutting down his encrypted e-mail service, Lavabit, without warning last week was like "putting a beloved pet to sleep." Now the government has threatened him with criminal charges for his decision to shut down the business, rather than obey some mysterious federal order that Levison is "prevented by law" from discussing. He is pleading with the press to report the story his is not allowed to discuss.
Feds Threaten To Arrest Lavabit Founder
For Shutting Down His Service
(August 18, 2013) -- The saga of Lavabit founder Ladar Levison is getting even more ridiculous, as he explains that the government has threatened him with criminal charges for his decision to shut down the business, rather than agree to some mysterious court order. The feds are apparently arguing that the act of shutting down the business, itself, was a violation of the order:
… a source familiar with the matter told NBC News that James Trump, a senior litigation counsel in the US attorney’s office in Alexandria, Va., sent an email to Levison's lawyer last Thursday -- the day Lavabit was shuttered -- stating that Levison may have "violated the court order," a statement that was interpreted as a possible threat to charge Levison with contempt of court.
That same article suggests that the decision to shut down Lavabit was over something much bigger than just looking at one individual's information -- since it appears that Lavabit has cooperated in the past on such cases. Instead, the suggestion now is that the government was seeking a tap on all accounts:
Levison stressed that he has complied with "upwards of two dozen court orders" for information in the past that were targeted at "specific users" and that "I never had a problem with that." But without disclosing details, he suggested that the order he received more recently was markedly different, requiring him to cooperate in broadly based surveillance that would scoop up information about all the users of his service. He likened the demands to a requirement to install a tap on his telephone.
It sounds like the feds were asking for a full on backdoor on the system, not unlike some previous reports of ISPs who have received surprise visits from the NSA.
Levison built e-mail "by geeks, for geeks" -- and then turned off 410,000 accounts
Lavabit Founder, Under Gag Order,
Speaks Out about Shutdown Decision
Joe Mullin / Ars Techica.com
(August 13 2013) -- Ladar Levison took 10 years to build his company -- and he's 32, making that most of his adult life. So when he shut down his encrypted e-mail service, Lavabit, without warning last week, it was like "putting a beloved pet to sleep."
"I was faced with the choice of watching it suffer or putting it to sleep quietly... it was very difficult," he told Democracy Now. "I had to pick between the lesser of two evils."
What was that other choice? "Unfortunately, I can't talk about that," Levison said during today's interview. "I would like to, believe me. I think that if the American people knew what our government was doing, they wouldn't be allowed to do it anymore.
"My hope is that the media can uncover what's going on without my assistance" and pressure Congress, he said. Together with Lavabit's own efforts working through the court system, he hopes it can "put a cap on what the government is entitled to in terms of our private communications."
The Lavabit shutdown came just a few weeks after a human rights activist revealed that she was contacted by National Security Agency (NSA) leaker Edward Snowden using the service. Within 24 hours after Levison announced he was shutting down, another online security company, Silent Circle, turned off its encrypted e-mail service, too.
Levison is speaking out about his decision to shut down the e-mail service in the hopes that it puts some pressure on Congress to change the laws that put him in this situation to begin with. Levison is legally barred from saying much about what the government demanded from him, but even with that broad gag order in place, he has refused to keep quiet. He's determined to at least let people know that the gag is there and let inferences be drawn.
"There'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," he said.
His service was built "by geeks, for geeks" and has settled into serving a niche of users who are "very privacy-conscious and security-focused," Levison said. He continued:
For our paid users -- not the free accounts, I think that's an important distinction -- we offered 'secure storage,' where incoming e-mails 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 e-mails. That's what we meant by 'encrypted e-mail.'
The discussion was Levison's second in-depth talk about his decision to abruptly shut down the company he spent a decade building. He also spoke to Forbes about his company, which he founded with friends from Southern Methodist University in 2004 as a response to the Patriot Act.
Secure e-mail was his company's only product, so Levison is walking away from the $50,000 to $100,000 in annual revenue his company made. He has also abandoned his own e-mail account, which was shut down just like all 410,000 other users. "I’m taking a break from e-mail,” he told Forbes. "If you knew what I know about e-mail, you might not use it either."
Snowden himself praised Levison's decision as "inspiring." His response was relayed by Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter who has published most of Snowden's leaked information:
Ladar Levison and his team suspended the operations of their 10-year-old business rather than violate the Constitutional rights of their roughly 400,000 users. The President, Congress, and the Courts have forgotten that the costs of bad policy are always borne by ordinary citizens, and it is our job to remind them that there are limits to what we will pay.
America cannot succeed as a country where individuals like Mr. Levison have to relocate their businesses abroad to be successful. Employees and leaders at Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, and the rest of our Internet titans must ask themselves why they aren't fighting for our interests the same way small businesses are. The defense they have offered to this point is that they were compelled by laws they do not agree with, but one day of downtime for the coalition of their services could achieve what a hundred Lavabits could not.
Levison appeared on Democracy Now alongside his lawyer, Jesse Binnall, who made it clear that the reason for Levison's circumspection was dead serious: it was to keep him out of prison.
"The stakes are very high," said Binnall. "It's a very unfortunate situation that, as Americans, we really are not supposed to have to worry about. But Ladar... has to watch every word he says when he's talking to the press for fear of being imprisoned. And we can't even talk about what the legal requirements are that make it so he has to watch his words. But the simple fact is that I'm here with him only because there are some very fine lines that he can't cross for fear of being dragged away in handcuffs."
Levison is fighting it out at the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit -- both for his right to tell his own story and ultimately to "resurrect Lavabit as an American company." He has a legal defense fund that contributors can give to via PayPal. As of Saturday morning, just 48 hours after announcing the shutdown, the fund had raised $90,000, according to Forbes.
Democracy Now also featured Nicholas Merrill in today's show. Merrill, founder of the Calyx Institute, was the first person to challenge the gag order in a National Security Letter, one of thousands sent out by the FBI. It took six years of fighting for Merrill to get released from parts of the gag order and to be allowed to even reveal that he was fighting it.
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