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Lavabit and Silent Circle refuse to be "complicit" with government, decides to kill encrypted services

Someday it may be written, "first they came for Lavabit and Silent Circle."  A telling sign of the growing atmosphere of censorship and surveillance of the internet by the U.S. federal government arrived this week with the shuttering of these two top encrypted email services.

I. Lavabit Chooses Death Before Dishonor

Lavabit was founded in 2004 and was owned/operated by Ladar Levison.  It offered free accounts of 128 megabytes, and paid accounts up to 8 GB.  As of July 2013, it had a reported 350,000 customers.  Among them -- allegedly -- was Edward Snowden, the man who leaked secrets of the U.S. National Surveillance Agency's ubiquitous surveillance of millions of Americans.

Not long after Edward Snowden's usage of the service was revealed at a July 12 press conference, Lavabit reportedly received either a national security letter (NSL) -- a warrantless demand for citizen data -- or a full-blown search/eavesdropping warrant -- both of which are sealed under gag order.  While unable to talk about the demand publicly, under threat of prosecution, Mr. Levison fought the government for six weeks with internal appeals seeking to protect his customers' privacy.

After reportedly losing that battle he posted the following message this week:

My Fellow Users,
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. I feel you deserve to know what’s going on–the first amendment is supposed to guarantee me the freedom to speak out in situations like this. Unfortunately, Congress has passed laws that say otherwise. As things currently stand, I cannot share my experiences over the last six weeks, even though I have twice made the appropriate requests.

What’s going to happen now? We’ve already started preparing the paperwork needed to continue to fight for the Constitution in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals [in Richmond, Virg.]. A favorable decision would allow me resurrect Lavabit as an American company.
This experience has taught me one very important lesson: without congressional action or a strong judicial precedent, I would _strongly_ recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States.
Ladar Levison
Owner and Operator, Lavabit LLC

Defending the constitution is expensive! Help us by donating to the Lavabit Legal Defense Fund here.

It's important to note here that Mr. Levison is not a privacy absolutist.  As Wired's Kevin Poulsen points out, he complied with a June 2013 search warrant of a suspect child pedophile's account.  However, he clearly felt there was a vast difference between helping bring to justice a misanthrope who preyed on children and colluding with the U.S. government to help silence criticism of its spying on its citizens.

Some users are angry at Lavabit, complaining on its Facebook, Inc. (FB) social network page that they lost their Steam accounts and that the company provided them with no migration route/refund.  A supporter of Lavabit blasted these critics, writing:

Holy shit, you guys are crying over your Steam accounts.  Just change your email to something else. Lavabit either had to roll over for the government, compromising our privacy, or shut down service. Be happy Ladar shut it down instead of rolling over.

The angry users seemed to outweigh the proponents.

II. Silent Circle is the Second Casualty

Soon after Lavabit's announcement, Silent Circle -- a hot new encrypted email service launched in Oct. 2012 and co-founded by Phil Zimmerman, the creator of the popular Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption program -- announced that it was also proactively closing up shop.

Company CEO Michael Janke told TechCrunch:

It goes deeper than that. There are some very high profile people on Silent Circle- and I mean very targeted people- as well as heads of state, human rights groups, reporters, special operations units from many countries. We wanted to be proactive because we knew [the U.S. Government] would come after us due to the sheer amount of people who use us- let alone the “highly targeted high profile people”. They are completely secure and clean on Silent Phone, Silent Text and Silent Eyes, but email is broken because govt can force us to turn over what we have. So to protect everyone and to drive them to use the other three peer to peer products- we made the decision to do this before men on [SIC] suits show up. Now- they are completely shut down- nothing they can get from us or try and force from us- we literally have nothing anywhere.
Silent Circle

These losses may just be the first in a far greater anti-privacy crackdown by the powers that rule the U.S.  In recent weeks the NSA and other intelligence agencies have demanded companies like Google Inc. (GOOGturn over master encryption keys allowing them to access any U.S. citizens private messages without permission.

Jennifer Granick, the Director of Civil Liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society (Stanford CIS) at Stanford University, says that the U.S. federal government's policing may kill the growing cloud software, services, and hosting industry in the U.S.  Already clients from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East have started to cancel their contracts and move elsewhere she says.  Even some companies in the U.S. are eyeing a move to European cloud hosting, fearing their competitive secrets will be seized by U.S. government spies.

Bush and Obama
Bush and Obama have over the last 13 years worked to successively increase government spying. [Image Source: NJ Today]

She writes:

The U.S. government, in its rush to spy on everybody, may end up killing our most productive industry. Lavabit may just be the canary in the coal mine.

She may want to watch that free speech -- top U.S. politicians -- such as Rep. Peter King (R- N.Y.) have suggested that academics and reporters who "severely damage national security" by disclosing or criticizing government spying on U.S. citizens should face criminal charges.

The public, though, remains partially apathetic.  A recent survey by the non-partisan Pew Research Center found that nearly half of Americans were fine with rolling over and meekly surrendering their freedom of privacy, saying they would have no problem with the government reading their emails.  In fact over half were fine with it if their party of choice was in power, with many only being opposed to it when the other ruling party was in power.  More recent polls however, suggest that this may be shifting with over half of Americans saying collecting emails/phone records is wrong and that the NSA may be "going to far", according to this summary compiled by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

That said, the vast majority of Americans -- critics or not of surveillance -- continue to either directly or indirectly support the parties that have championed it.  In recent elections the majority has chosen to either not vote or continuing to vote for the same two parties that have ballooned the national debt and trampled the Constitution.  Still, at least the public is starting to realize that America today might not be in the same free state it was in our parent's times.

Sources: Lavabit, TechCrunch, Wired

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Its Obaba's Problem
By bobcpg on 8/9/2013 1:06:55 PM , Rating: -1
Obama is in his second term. He rammed through healthcare and the majority of people did not approve.

Now the majority of people do no want this spying, but Obama does nothing.

We need to hold him accountable fully for this otherwise we will get nothing in response. Diluting the accountability with Bush tiebacks does nothing to help the situation other than helping people feel better to continue supporting Obama's (in)actions.

RE: Its Obaba's Problem
By gamerk2 on 8/9/2013 2:25:43 PM , Rating: 1
Rammed though healthcare? You mean that bill that was debated for over a year, and re-written twice to be less liberal in nature?

I guess we have different opinions of "rammed through".


Medicare was opposed by a vast majority of americans when it was passed. I guess we should overturn that too...wait a sec, they like it now. Funny how that worked out...

RE: Its Obaba's Problem
By Samus on 8/9/2013 3:21:39 PM , Rating: 1
Exactly. Healthcare reform will go down as Obama's legacy; aka, the single great thing he did. I don't approve of much else he has had direct involvement in, other than perhaps the execution order of Bin Laden (which just about any president would have done.)

Unfortunately, because the House and Senate are dysfunctional as ever, this modification to healthcare is not the full-blown revolutionary change we need to correct our ridiculous healthcare costs. It's still going to improve peoples health, quality of life (if they take advantage of it) and reduce costs in the long run but it could have been great if they worked closer with insurance companies instead of scaring them out of business.

RE: Its Obaba's Problem
By Arsynic on 8/9/2013 3:42:08 PM , Rating: 4
It's not healthcare reform, dumbass. It's health insurance reform. Healthcare is still as expensive and wasteful as ever.

RE: Its Obaba's Problem
By Reclaimer77 on 8/10/13, Rating: 0
RE: Its Obaba's Problem
By superstition on 8/10/2013 1:43:01 PM , Rating: 3
You're way off.

The entire point of the exercise was to institute the precedent of the government being able to force citizens to buy private companies' products.

It was all about the mandate, which the Supreme Court narrowly approved, thanks to John Roberts.

You need to read this article, carefully:

Hopefully it will open your eyes to the fact that Obama is nothing like the ultra liberal commie that you claim he is. He, in fact, is just like the rest of Washington: a lackey for corporate welfare, a retainer for the elite feeding trough, a figurehead for American corporate imperialism.

The two parties were in cahoots on the health thing. The GOP put up its opposition long enough for the Democrats to lie to the public about actual reform (and kill it, as they promised to do in their secret meetings with the industry). All the ridiculous propaganda about death panels and such gave them time and the media the opportunity to try to convince the public that their 76% support of a public option wasn't so important.

Then the GOP magically dropped their opposition in the early morning right before Christmas Eve, allowing it to come to a vote. Funny how these things happen when no one is paying attention.

What was left? Was it single-payer? No. Was it a real ("robust") public option? No. Was it the watered-down-to-nothing fake public option that Pelosi passed for show and which the Democratically-controlled Senate didn't? No.

What was left was the mandate. The mandate was about forcing citizens to pay the salaries of the CEOs and their lobbyists who bribe the government to force the citizens to pay the salaries of the CEOs and their lobbyists.

Pretty neat, huh? It's especially neat when people are duped into believing what you do -- that somewhere there are magical little fairies who aspire to create some sort of actual populism.

RE: Its Obaba's Problem
By superstition on 8/10/2013 1:49:49 PM , Rating: 2
Actually, I should modify "American corporate imperialism" to be just "corporate imperialism" -- because globalization has rendered the concept of America (i.e. nationhood) rather immaterial in many respects.

Nonetheless, we still operate to a significant degree as if nationhood matters. Although, it is highly likely that it is artificially heightened in terms of apparent importance because it helps to delude the public.

The aforementioned is quite peripheral with regard to the main point of my post, though. That was to do with the lovely funding/corruption loop illustrated by the penultimate paragraph.

RE: Its Obaba's Problem
By phxfreddy on 8/10/2013 3:09:17 PM , Rating: 1
Optimistic view of ObamaCare. The country's finances were good when medicare was implemented. They are not now. The outcome may be different.

RE: Its Obaba's Problem
By bobcpg on 8/9/2013 3:30:24 PM , Rating: 2
I have never heard anyone say they loved Medicare. Or even that they like Medicare… or even that they just a little bit hate Medicare. I have only have heard people despise Medicare. The only reason they put up with Medicare is because they are forced into it. Same goes with Social Security. Ever heard anyone say “I can’t wait until I retire to the great life Social Security will provide me.”?

No. Why, because people have to work even harder to stash away more money to make up for what Social Security will not cover.

So I’m not sure who “they” are you refer to but it’s not anyone who has a clue.

RE: Its Obaba's Problem
By Chaser on 8/9/2013 3:32:03 PM , Rating: 2
Rammed though healthcare? You mean that bill that was debated for over a year, and re-written twice to be less liberal in nature?
I'd say not being voted for by a single Republican constituted rammed which resulted in the firing of Nancy Pelosi and the return of control of the House to Republicans by a major majority.
Medicare was opposed by a vast majority of Americans when it was passed. I guess we should overturn that too...wait a sec, they like it now. Funny how that worked out...
No what's "funny" is how that program is in dire budgetary trouble today. But who cares right? Let's just expand it and put more even people on a government healthcare program. The people that voted for Obamacare could care less about government solvency. It's all about their generous short term gratitude with everyone else's money. Oh by the way, most of the politicians that voted for Obamacare -again only Democrats- are asking for an exemption from the program now. Wait a sec. Yeah they love it now.

RE: Its Obaba's Problem
By Schrag4 on 8/9/2013 4:53:07 PM , Rating: 3
...we have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it...

-Nancy Pelosi

Yeah that doesn't sound rammed through at all.

RE: Its Obaba's Problem
By redbone75 on 8/10/2013 4:06:04 PM , Rating: 1
He rammed through healthcare and the majority of people did not approve.

He rammed through healthcare and the majority of Republicans did not approve.

There, fixed it for you.

RE: Its Obaba's Problem
By ebakke on 8/10/2013 5:32:21 PM , Rating: 2
Polling back to Nov 2009 shows that many times in the last 3+ years (including the months leading up to the bill's passage) the polling average indicated greater than 50% opposition to the bill. It also shows the polling average has never indicated greater support for the bill than opposition to it.

"Game reviewers fought each other to write the most glowing coverage possible for the powerhouse Sony, MS systems. Reviewers flipped coins to see who would review the Nintendo Wii. The losers got stuck with the job." -- Andy Marken

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