More on the story behind the Lavabit shut down

More information has emerged on why Ladar Levison, the owner of the encrypted mail service Lavabit, chose to shut down his service entirely rather than comply with government demands to provide a back door for them to secretly access all his clients’ communications.

Earlier he himself could not talk about the reasons because we now have a system of secret National Security Letters in which the government can ask you to do things that you cannot refuse or discuss or even talk to a lawyer about without being prosecuted, itself an amazing piece of evidence about the extent to which the government has acquired coercive powers over individuals.

This new information came about because a District Court judge ordered the release of two secret court orders against Lavabit that Levison had appealed to the Fourth Circuit court of appeals. The release of these documents has given Levison more room to talk about his case without running afoul of these appalling laws. The documents reveal the sequence of events in which the FBI threatened Levison with increasing penalties unless he gave them the encryption keys to all 400,000 of the clients who used his services.

The interesting thing is that Levison is by no means a radical opposed to all government surveillance. While he was willing to comply with court orders that targeted specific individuals (and had done so previously) he drew the line at installing backdoors into his service that would enable the government access to all his clients’ emails. His decision to shut his service down is a result of a government security system that has become so arrogant that it feels that it has the right to demand anything from us, and that we have no choice but to comply or risk having them throw their massive legal machinery at us.

So what is he going to do once this is all over?

When this is all over, he plans to reopen Lavabit, if possible, in the United States; he intends to stay in the country no matter what. If Lavabit can’t operate securely in the U.S., he intends to hand off the project to someone in a country with more sympathetic laws, such as Iceland or Switzerland. In the meantime, he is beginning to think about the grander, harder project of creating a replacement for e-mail that can be truly secure and easy to use, although he’s not ready to say anything substantive about the project.

Good luck to him.


  1. trucreep says

    I wish him all the best. I read a post by Orin Kerr covering this case, and he did not have much optimism for Mr. Levison unfortunately :[ Nonetheless, I hope he is successful. Whether he broke the law or not, this is clearly a bad law.

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