Lavabit, Silent Mail Founders Open Up About Self-Shutdown [Video]

Both Lavabit and Silent Mail abruptly pulled the plug on their encrypted email services late last week, and their owners are speaking out.

You may recall that Lavabit’s Ladar Levision posted a message to users last week that said in part, “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.”

Lavabit reportedly was Edward Snowden’s email provider. Snowden is the NSA leaker/whistleblower who revealed the massive domestic electronic surveillance initiative under the agency’s PRISM program.

In an interview with Democracy Now (see embed above) yesterday, Ladar Levison compared the decision to close Lavabit to putting a beloved pet to death. He described Lavabit as a service for those who were privacy conscious and security focused.

Levison is under a court-imposed gag order — possibly as a result of receiving a National Security letter — that prevents him from discussing any specifics of his legal issues with the federal government, however.

“Secrecy… is being used by the current administration to cover up tactics that they may be ashamed of,” Levision claimed.

Levison said that while he can’t discuss the legal ramifications of continuing the Lavabit service right now, he’s trying to get the attention of Congress so that lawmakers will change the regulations governing cloud providers and secure, private services.

“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 DC today speaking to you. My hope is that 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.”

Although he is still a fan of email, Levison warned that “I think you should assume that any communication that is electronic is being monitored.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Lavabit shutdown, Silent Mail creator Silent Circle followed suit and closed down its secure email service as well. On the company blog, an announcement stated in part that “We see the writing the wall, and we have decided that it is best for us to shut down Silent Mail now. We have not received subpoenas, warrants, security letters, or anything else by any government, and this is why we are acting now.”

In an interview with ZDNet about discontinuing Silent Mail, Silent Circle CEO Michael Janke acknowledged that Silent Mail was merely a stop-gap measure given current email technology. “We knew that metadata was just as dangerous as email content regardless of if the contents of an email are encrypted. Who, when, where, why, the message header, your ISP, what operating system you’re using, geolocating, and who you’re communicating with are all very dangerous bits of data to retain.”

Added Janke: “… We were literally sitting on a treasure trove of data that was highly valuable to many, many nations and intelligence agencies of the world. We made the preemptive decision to just scorched-earth it.”

With regard to the publicity surrounded the Snowden revelations, Janke noted that “I want to stress, a lot of press has been around PRISM and what happens here in the United States, but this is a global phenomenon. it is not relegated to our shores. This happens in Europe, the Balkans, South America, Asia, on a daily basis. Companies with equipment, people, and data in those countries are literally done with secret courts and gag orders. And in some countries, it’s not as nice as it is here,” in terms of 1st and 4th Amendment rights or equivalent legal protections.

The right to digital privacy should be universal, he asserted, however. “Whether you’re in Tibet, Toledo, or Tunisia, [it is] the natural born right of every citizen to have a private conversation, to share a private picture or document; we feel is an innate right of the world.”

About the National Security Agency specifically, Janke — who is an ex-Navy SEAL — explained that “We understand and want the NSA to protect our citizens… But that conversation has to also take into account… the freedom of speech, the privacy rights of individuals, and the rights of companies to protect their intellectual property.”

Watch the full, wide-ranging Michael Janke ZDNet interview below:

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