Skip to Content

Lavabit: A Profile in Corporate Principles and Personal Courage

Confronting the latest attack on our privacy and freedom


The term "collateral damage" is most frequently applied to the "non-targeted" death and destruction brought by bombs and guns. But it seems that our government, the master of collateral damage, is now doing it in "non-violent" ways. Take the recent situation at Lavabit.

The Texas-based email provider, specializing in encrypted email services, announced Thursday that it's immediately suspending its services. The crux of the issue is obliquely revealed in the statement by Lavabit's founder and owner 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."

Lavabit's Home Page Before the SuspensionLavabit's Home Page Before the Suspension

Most of us can't be sure what forced Levison's hand but the content and cryptic nature of his explanation speaks volumes. "As things currently stand," he wrote, "I cannot share my experiences over the last six weeks, even though I have twice made the appropriate requests."

One of Lavabit's 350,000 users is Edward Snowdon and, given the frenzied attacks against and investigations of this renowned whistle-blower, it's pretty clear what happened. "Reading between the lines," Wired's Kevin Poulsen writes, "it’s reasonable to assume Levison has been fighting either a National Security Letter seeking customer information — which comes by default with a gag order — or a full-blown search or eavesdropping warrant."

If that's the case and LavaBit doesn't give up what's being demanded (probably Snowdown emails) Levison faces harsh criminal penalties. If he does give them up he contradicts the very purpose the provider was founded for in the first place and that would probably spell LavaBit's death. It's like forcing someone to play Russian Roulette with bullets in all the chambers. Except that one of those bullets is also aimed at our privacy and our ability to use the Internet the way it was intended.

Not only is this a significant and sobering expansion of the government's attack on secure Internet communications; it also shows the complete disdain the Obama Administration has for people's privacy, specifically in this case the 350,000 Lavabit users who now have no secure email service.

Ladar Levison founded Lavabit in 2004 for one reason: to provide a simple and powerful encrypted email service to anybody who wanted one. People could sign up for a free account or a paid one; the only difference was the amount of storage available to the user on Lavabit's servers.

story | by Dr. Radut