Encrypted email service self-immolates after US demands

by Toby Manhire / 13 August, 2013
Edward Snowden's email choice, Lavabit, in “honourable suicide” – will Kim Dotcom’s Mega fill the gap?

When the world’s most famous whistleblower-fugitive, Edward Snowden, announced that his efforts to avoid the extraordinary American surveillance apparatus that he had exposed involved using the encrypted email service Lavabit, the Dallas based company saw a surge in new custom, with the volume of new registrations tripling.

But as of four days ago, Lavabit is gone.

Arrivals at the home page are greeted with this message from Lavabit founder Ladar Levison:

 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.

“This is about protecting all of our users, not just one in particular,” Levison told Forbes.com’s Kashmir Hill. “It’s not my place to decide whether an investigation is just, but the government has the legal authority to force you to do things you’re uncomfortable with. The fact that I can’t talk about this is as big a problem as what they asked me to do.”

Levison says they’ve “started preparing the paperwork needed to continue to fight for the Constitution in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals” – and that a “favourable decision would allow me resurrect Lavabit as an American company”.

For the time being, he’s quit email altogether. “I’m taking a break from email,” he said. “If you knew what I know about email, you might not use it, either.”


Levison’s decision to close the service is an example of “Privacy Seppuku”, writes Vikram Kumar at his personal blog – “seppuku” being the Japanese concept of ritual self-disembowlment: “honourably and publicly shutting down rather than being forced to comply with laws and courts intent on violating people’s privacy”.

Kim Dotcom outside the Auckland High Court
Kim Dotcom. photo Sarah Ivey/NZH

Kumar has more than a passing interest. He is chief executive of Kim Dotcom’s Mega, which as part of its emphasis on becoming a “privacy company” is developing an encrypted email service.

Such an initiative won’t work in New Zealand, however, should proposed new legislation requiring internet companies to cough up data be enacted.

Dotcom tweeted:

Mega plans to move privacy operations away from New Zealand to Iceland if the new #GCSB & #TICS spy laws are becoming reality

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