How the government killed a secure e-mail company

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 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…]

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3 thoughts on “How the government killed a secure e-mail company

  1. La vérité

    Lavabit on Facebook……

    Another perspective on Lavabit…
    “No matter the opinions to be expressed, one thing must always be kept clear. We can have this discussion because Ladar Levison, faced with an excruciating choice, made a principled decision: he built an email provider to protect privacy and when it could no longer do that he refused to violate its purpose and he shut it down. Compare that principled, selfless response to the “come and get it” responses of so many corporate providers.”

  2. Norman

    The secret is so secret, that we can’t even speak about it being secret, because then we would be guilty of telling a secret, which could be against a secret giving of a secret. If this whole damn thing is a bunch of gobbledegook, I don’t know what is. The horse has left the barn, so just get on with the closing of the door and end all this nonsense, before the revolution becomes beyond the pale.

  3. freddy kuman

    It would be interesting to know how this Lavabit meltdown relates to non-US based email encryption services such as and if it we could expect similar abrupt shutdowns of offshore servers?

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