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

"A politician stumbles over himself... Then they pick it out. They edit it. He runs the clip, and then he makes a funny face, and the whole audience has a Pavlovian response." -- Joe Scarborough on John Stewart over Jim Cramer

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