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EXCLUSIVE: Owner of Snowden’s Email Service on Why He Closed Lavabit Rather Than Comply With Gov’t

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Lavabit, an encrypted email service believed to have been used by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, has abruptly shut down. The move came amidst a legal fight that appeared to involve U.S. government attempts to win access to customer information. In a Democracy Now! broadcast exclusive, we are joined by Lavabit owner Ladar Levison and his lawyer, Jesse Binnall. “Unfortunately, I can’t talk about it. I would like to, believe me,” Levison says. “I think if the American public knew what our government was doing, they wouldn’t be allowed to do it anymore.” In a message to his customers last week, Levison said: “I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people, or walk away from nearly 10 years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit.” Levison said he was barred from discussing the events over the past six weeks that led to his decision. Soon after, another secure email provider called Silent Circle also announced it was shutting down. (Related: Watch our continued discussion with Levison and Nicholas Merrill, who took FBI to court after receiving a national security letter.)

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StoryAug 13, 2013Former Internet Provider Gagged by National Security Letter Recounts How He Was Silenced for 6 Years
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: We turn now to the news an encrypted email service believed to have been used by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden has abruptly shut down. The move came amidst a legal fight that appeared to involve U.S. government attempts to win access to customer information.

The owner of Lavabit, Ladar Levison, wrote a message online saying, quote, “I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people, or walk away from nearly 10 years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit.” Ladar Levison said he was barred from discussing the events over the past six weeks that led to his decision.

He went on to write, quote, “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.”

Later on Thursday, another secure email provider called Silent Circle also announced it was shutting down.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, in a Democracy Now! broadcast exclusive, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Ladar Levison, founder, owner and operator of Lavabit. We’re also joined by his lawyer, Jesse Binnall.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Ladar Levison, let’s begin with you. Explain the decision you made.

LADAR LEVISON: Yeah, well, I’ve—thank you, Amy. I’ve compared the decision to that of, you know, putting a beloved pet to sleep, you know, faced with the choice of watching it suffer or putting it to sleep quietly. It was a very difficult decision. But I felt that in the end I had to pick between the lesser of two evils and that shutting down the service, if it was no longer secure, was the better option. It was, in effect, the lesser of the two evils.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you facing? When you say “the lesser of two evils,” what was the other choice?

LADAR LEVISON: Unfortunately, I can’t talk about that. I would like to, believe me. I think if the American public knew what our government was doing, they wouldn’t be allowed to do it anymore, which is why I’m here in D.C. today speaking to you. My hope is that, you know, the media can uncover what’s going on, without my assistance, and, you know, sort of pressure both Congress and our efforts through the court system to, in effect, put a cap on what it is the government is entitled to in terms of our private communications.

AARON MATÉ: For those who aren’t familiar with what encrypted email is, can you walk us through that and talk about what your service provided?

LADAR LEVISON: Certainly. You know, I’ve always liked to say my service was by geeks, for geeks. It’s grown up over the last 10 years, it’s sort of settled itself into serving those that are very privacy-conscious and security-focused. We offered secure access via high-grade encryption. And at least for our paid users, not for our free accounts—I think that’s an important distinction—we offered secure storage, where incoming emails were stored in such a way that they could only be accessed with the user’s password, so that, you know, even myself couldn’t retrieve those emails. And that’s what we meant by encrypted email. That’s a term that’s sort of been thrown around because there are so many different standards for encryption, but in our case it was encrypted in secure storage, because, as a third party, you know, I didn’t want to be put in a situation where I had to turn over private information. I just didn’t have it. I didn’t have access to it. And that was sort of—may have been the situation that I was facing. You know, obviously, I can’t speak to the details of any specific case, but—I’ll just leave it at that.

AMY GOODMAN: NSA leaker Edward Snowden recently described your decision to shut down Lavabit as, quote, “inspiring.” He told The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, quote, “America cannot succeed as a country where individuals like Mr. Levison have to relocate their businesses abroad to be successful. Employees and leaders at Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, and the rest of our internet titans must ask themselves why they aren't fighting for our interests the same way small businesses are. The defense they have offered to this point is that they were compelled by laws they do not agree with, but one day of downtime for the coalition of their services could achieve what a hundred Lavabits could not.”

Snowden went on to say, quote, “When Congress returns to session in September, let us take note of whether the internet industry’s statements and lobbyists—which were invisible in the lead-up to the Conyers-Amash vote—emerge on the side of the Free Internet or the NSA and its Intelligence Committees in Congress.”

Ladar, you were the service provider for Edward Snowden?

LADAR LEVISON: I believe that’s correct. Obviously, I didn’t know him personally, but it’s been widely reported, and there was an email account bearing his name on my system, as I’ve been made well aware of recently.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald also wrote, “What is particularly creepy about the Lavabit self-shutdown is that the company is gagged by law even from discussing the legal challenges it has mounted and the court proceeding it has engaged. In other words, the American owner of the company believes his Constitutional rights and those of his customers are being violated by the US Government, but he is not allowed to talk about it.”

Greenwald goes on to write, quote, “Just as is true for people who receive National Security Letters under the Patriot Act, Lavabit has been told [that] they would face serious criminal sanctions if they publicly discuss what is being done to their company.”

Ladar Levison, why did you start Lavabit?

LADAR LEVISON: Well, just to add one thing to Greenwald’s comments, I mean, there’s information that I can’t even share with my lawyer, let alone with the American public. So if we’re talking about secrecy, you know, it’s really been taken to the extreme. And I think it’s really being used by the current administration to cover up tactics that they may be ashamed of.

But just to answer your question, why did I start Lavabit? It was right out of college. I was sitting around with a group of my friends. I owned the domain name nerdshack.com, and we thought it would be cool to offer, you know, a free private email with a large quota, just like Gmail, and we sort of built the service along those lines. And as I was designing and developing the custom platform, it was right around when the PATRIOT Act came out. And that’s really what colored my opinion and my philosophy, and why I chose to take the extra effort and build in the secure storage features and sort of focus on the privacy niche and the security focus niche. And it’s really grown up from there. We’ve seen a lot of demand for, you know, people who want email but don’t necessarily want it lumped in and profiled along with their searches or their browsing history or any of their other Internet activities. And that’s really where we’ve focused and really how we’ve grown over the years, up to when I shut down 410,000 registered users.

AARON MATÉ: And, Ladar, during this time, you’ve complied with other government subpoenas. Is that correct?

LADAR LEVISON: Yeah, we’ve probably had at least two dozen subpoenas over the last 10 years, from local sheriffs’ offices all the way up to federal courts. And obviously I can’t speak to any particular one, but we’ve always complied with them. I think it’s important to note that, you know, I’ve always complied with the law. It’s just in this particular case I felt that complying with the law—

JESSE BINNALL: And we do have to be careful at this point.


JESSE BINNALL: But I think he can speak philosophically about the—his philosophy behind Lavabit and why it would lead to his decision to shut down.

LADAR LEVISON: Yeah, I have—

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Jesse Binnall, by the way. And, Jesse, how difficult is this for Ladar Levison, what he can say, what he can’t say? How high are the stakes here?

JESSE BINNALL: The stakes are very high. It’s a very unfortunate situation that, as Americans, we really are not supposed to have to worry about. But Ladar is in a situation where he has to watch every word he says when he’s talking to the press, for fear of being imprisoned. And we can’t even talk about what the legal requirements are that make it so he has to watch his words. But the simple fact is, I’m really here with him only because there are some very fine lines that he can’t cross, for fear of being dragged away in handcuffs. And that’s pretty much the exact fears that led the founders to give us the First Amendment in the first place. So it’s high stakes.


AARON MATÉ: And, Ladar, in your letter, you write that “A favorable decision would allow me to resurrect Lavabit as an American company.” So, are you suggesting perhaps that you would consider moving it abroad?

LADAR LEVISON: I don’t think I can continue to run Lavabit abroad as an American citizen. I would have to move abroad, effectively, to administer the service. As an American citizen, I’m still subject to the laws and jurisdiction of the United States, particularly as long as I continue to live here. You know, that’s why I have a lot of respect for Snowden, because he gave up his entire life, the life that he’s known his entire life, so that he could speak out. I haven’t gotten to that point. I still hope that it’s possible to run a private service, private cloud data service, here in the United States without necessarily being forced to conduct surveillance on your users by the American government.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you say, Ladar, if you’ve received a national security letter?


JESSE BINNALL: Unfortunately, he can’t.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to talk about that in a minute, the overall issue of what these are, for listeners and viewers who are not familiar with this. But, Ladar Levison, soon after you pulled the plug on Lavabit, another encrypted email provider called Silent Circle also shut down. Mike Janke, Silent Circle’s CEO and co-founder, said, quote, “There was no 12-hour heads up. If we announced it, it would have given authorities time to file a national security letter. We decided to destroy it before we were asked to turn (information) over. We had to do scorched earth.” Ladar, your response?

LADAR LEVISON: I can certainly understand his position. If the government had learned that I was shutting my service down—can I say that?

JESSE BINNALL: Well, I think it’s best to kind of avoid that topic, unfortunately. But I think it is fair to say that Silent Circle was probably in a very different situation than Lavabit was, and which is probably why they took the steps that they did, which I think were admirable.

LADAR LEVISON: Yeah. But I will say that I don’t think I had a choice but to shut it down without notice. I felt that was my only option. And I’ll have to leave it to your listeners to understand why. But it’s important to note that, you know, Lavabit wasn’t the first service provider to receive a government request, and we’re not the first service provider to fight it. We’re just the first service provider to take a different approach. And it could very well be because of our size that we have that option. We’re wholly focused on secure email. Without it, we have no business. You take a much larger provider with a greater number of employees, and shutting down a major section of their company, when they have to answer to shareholders, may not be a viable option.

AMY GOODMAN: Why have you decided to speak out today, Ladar?

LADAR LEVISON: Because my biggest fear when I shut down the service was that no good would come of it. And I’m hoping that by speaking out, I can prompt, hopefully, Congress to act and change the laws that put me in this circumstance to begin with. I know that’s a little ironic, considering I can’t speak about the specific laws that put me in this position, but, you know, there’s a real need in this country to establish what the rights are of our cloud providers. And unless we take actions to ensure that, you know, we can continue to operate secure, private services, I think we’re going to lose a lot of business over the next few years. And I think all the major providers, not just Lavabit, have gone on record to say the same.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think people should use email?

LADAR LEVISON: Yeah, I think it’s a great way to communicate. I think we’re entering a world where we have any number of ways of communicating, from postal mail to Twitter, to text messaging, to Facebook, to instant messenger, to email, to telephone, to video chat. They all kind of blend together. They all sort of fit their own niche, their own purpose. And I think email still has a very important role to play in communication between people.

AMY GOODMAN: Should we just assume it’s all being read?

LADAR LEVISON: I think you should assume any communication that is electronic is being monitored.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to our discussion. And we’ll be joined by a service provider who did get a national security letter and is now able to talk about it. We’ve been speaking with Ladar Levison, Lavabit owner, who just shut down the—as a service provider, provided services to Edward Snowden; and Jesse Binnall, his lawyer. We’ll be back in a minute.

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Former Internet Provider Gagged by National Security Letter Recounts How He Was Silenced for 6 Years

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