Authorities threaten owner of email service reportedly used by Edward Snowden

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Last week, the owner of Lavabit LLC, an encrypted email service reportedly used by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, shut down the service on August 8 rather than comply with an demand from the US attorney’s office in Alexandria, Virginia. Owner Ladar Vevison immediately posted a notice on the Lavabit.com website.

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. – Lavabit.com

It is believed that Levison received a National Security Letter or subpoena for information that forbids the recipient from speaking about it.  The government is now threatening Levision with prosecution.

James Trump, a senior litigation counsel at the US attorney’s office in Alexandria, Virginia, contacted Levinson’s lawyer on August 8 – the day Levinson ended Lavabit’s services, NBC News reported. The attorney was told that Levison had “violated the court order,” leading to speculation that he may be charged with contempt of court. – RT, Aug. 17

TechSpot notes that Trump was “a lead attorney on high-profile leak investigations surrounding former CIA officers Jeffrey Sterling and John Kiriakou.” Soon after Lavabit shut down, another email service, Silent Circle, shut down to preempt any government effort to demand user data. Other email services, including Riseup and Cryptocat, have expressed solidarity by promising to shut down their services, too, if ordered to participate in abusive surveillance.

In the above video, Michael Janke, CEO of Silent Circle, explains to David Gewirtz of ZDNet why it was shut down.

Levinson created Lavabit in response to the Patriot Act and ten years later it had more than 410,000 customers. The company was Levison’s primary source of income, generating $50,000 to $100,000 annually. (Forbes.com)

Levison says he does not protect criminals and, “if information is unencrypted and law enforcement has a court order, I hand it over.”  However, he finds the most recent government demand disturbing–so disturbing that he is making preparations for a legal battle with the government over the Constitutionality of the government’s demand for customers’ communications.

“I’m taking a break from email,” said Levison. “If you knew what I know about email, you might not use it either.”

The shutdown notice on the Lavabit website requests donations toward the legal expense of protecting customer privacy.