Michael Phillips writes: In mid-July, Tanya Lokshina, the deputy director for Human Rights Watch’s Moscow office, wrote on her Facebook wall that she had received an e-mail from firstname.lastname@example.org. It requested that she attend a press conference at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport to discuss the N.S.A. leaker’s “situation.” This was the wider public’s introduction to Lavabit, an e-mail service prized for its security. Lavabit promised, for instance, that messages stored on the service using asymmetric encryption, which encrypts incoming e-mails before they’re saved on Lavabit’s servers, could not even be read by Lavabit itself.
Yesterday, Lavabit went dark. In a cryptic statement posted on the Web site, the service’s owner and operator, Ladar Levison, wrote, “I cannot share my experiences over the last six weeks, even though I have twice made the appropriate requests.” Those experiences led him to shut down the service rather than, as he put it, “become complicit in crimes against the American people.” Lavabit users reacted with consumer vitriol on the company’s Facebook page (“What about our emails?”), but the tide quickly turned toward government critique. By the end of the night, a similar service, Silent Circle, also shut down its encrypted e-mail product, calling the Lavabit affair the “writing [on] the wall.”
Which secret surveillance scheme is involved in the Lavabit case? The company may have received a national-security letter, which is a demand issued by a federal agency (typically the F.B.I.) that the recipient turn over data about other individuals. These letters often forbid recipients from discussing it with anyone. Another possibility is that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court may have issued a warrant ordering Lavabit to participate in ongoing e-mail surveillance. We can’t be completely sure: as Judge Reggie Walton, the presiding judge of the FISA court, explained to Senator Patrick Leahy in a letter dated July 29th, FISA proceedings, decisions, and legal rationales are typically secret. America’s surveillance programs are secret, as are the court proceedings that enable them and the legal rationales that justify them; informed dissents, like those by Levison or Senator Ron Wyden, must be kept secret. The reasons for all this secrecy are also secret. That some of the secrets are out has not deterred the Obama Administration from prosecuting leakers under the Espionage Act for disclosure of classified information. Call it meta-secrecy. [Continue reading…]