By Alexander Reed Kelly
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating. Nominate our next Truthdigger here.
Americans love an underdog. So they should be cheering Ladar Levison, a 32-year-old digital security specialist who closed the email service he operated for 10 years rather than help the U.S. government spy on his customers.
Until Thursday afternoon, Levison was the owner and operator of Lavabit, a secure email service developed by a group of programmers in Texas in 2004 that used encryption technology to prevent the content of its users’ emails from being read by anyone who didn’t possess the numerical “keys” required to “unlock” them. Levison’s decision appears to be unprecedented. Kurt Opsahl, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was quoted by The Guardian as saying: “I am unaware of any situation in which a service provider chose to shut down rather than comply with a court order they felt violated the constitution.”
No amount of encryption can completely protect online activity from determined snoopers, but Lavabit’s methods appear to have been among the most sound and reliable available to people desiring to communicate privately online. In an article about certain consequences of Lavabit’s shutdown, New Statesman technology reporter Alex Hern asserted that “based on everything we know about the intelligence services, even they can’t break that sort of encryption. If they don’t have the key, they don’t have the data.”
As if the availability of that kind of power wasn’t enough to attract official attention, the service became a focus of the U.S. government when it came out that NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden was likely using it to talk with people across the globe out of earshot of the authorities. Snowden apparently used the non-secretive email address email@example.com to invite journalists and human rights activists to a news conference in the international zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, where he was sequestered for more than a month.
If Snowden did indeed use Lavabit, he would not have been alone. According to the independent news site mathaba, Lavabit had 40,000 people logging in every day and sending 1.4 million messages per week. The Guardian says the service claimed 350,000 customers. Reports that Snowden used the site appeared to cause the number of people signing up to triple in recent weeks.
Levison’s parting message to his customers and the broader public, published to Lavabit’s page immediately after the shutdown, reads like an anxious hero’s cry against the advances of an overwhelming villain.
“My Fellow Users,” he begins, striking a fittingly non-hierarchical tone. “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?” he continues. “We’ve already started preparing the paperwork needed to continue to fight for the Constitution in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. A favorable decision would allow me to resurrect Lavabit as an American company.”
“This experience has taught me one very important lesson,” Levison concludes. He has a warning for everyone using conventional tools and services to communicate online: “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.” The warning echoes a grimmer comment attributed to him on mathaba: “I’m taking a break from email,” Levison reportedly said. “If you knew what I know about email, you might not use it either.”
Lavabit is not the only casualty of the government’s aggressive pursuit of encryption services. Hours after Lavabit announced its shutdown, another company that offered email encryption, Silent Circle, said it was pre-emptively shutting down its service.
Levison is not a privacy absolutist. When it’s made available to everyone, encryption technology can be used by criminals too. “He has cooperated in the past with government investigations,” mathaba reports. “He says he’s received ‘two dozen’ requests over the last ten years, and in cases where he had information, he would turn over what he had.”
Levison says he does not intend to support criminality. “I’m not trying to protect people from law enforcement,” he said. “If information is unencrypted and law enforcement has a court order, I hand it over.” But the secretive way the government goes about collecting information, which Americans know much about after months of revelations concerning the White House and the National Security Agency’s massive dragnet spying program, does disturb him. “The methods being used to conduct those investigations should not be secret,” he said.
Levison is currently raising money for a legal battle in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. As of Saturday morning, a defense fund being raised by private donors was reaching $90,000. He says he will revive Lavabit only if he can secure legal protections for services like his. “It needs to be clear that the government can’t do what they’re trying to do,” he said. “Otherwise the same request is going to come right back at us. Other big names aren’t able to shut down in protest. I’m one person without a bunch of employees to support. If we win, we win for everyone.”
When the Obama administration is using all of its vast, publicly funded resources to wage a war on Americans’ privacy and the freedom of thought that privacy enables, those words are exciting. Levison is a David facing a modern Goliath. His victory is not assured, but his determination to stand up for some of the United States’ founding principles, at a time when such a move is becoming increasingly dangerous, is inspiring. For sticking his neck out for all of us, we honor Ladar Levison as our Truthdigger of the Week.
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