Lavabit, the encrypted e-mail service reportedly used by National Security Agency information leaker Edward Snowden, has suddenly shut down.
The extremely secure service, which used something called "asymmetric encryption" and claimed 350,000 customers, apparently closed down Thursday after rejecting a court order that it cooperate with U.S. government demands to keep tabs on its customers, reports The Guardian
"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 founder Ladar Levison wrote on the company's website
Levison said restrictions imposed by the government prohibited him from explaining what led to the shutdown.
"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," he wrote.
"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."
Kurt Opsahl, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The Guardian that Levison's decision was the first he was aware of where a company decided to close its doors rather than comply with government surveillance demands.
"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," he said.
Following Levison's move, Silent Circle, another provider of secure online services, announced Thursday night that it would also end its own encrypted e-mail service.
"We see the writing on the wall, and we have decided that it is best for us to shut down Silent Mail now," company officials said in a blog post
"We have not received subpoenas, warrants, security letters, or anything else by any government, and this is why we are acting now."
Some technology companies that do cooperate with the NSA's surveillance efforts have filed legal requests that they be allowed to lift the secrecy restrictions that prevent them from telling their customers what information they provide to the government.
for one has filed a lawsuit seeking to disclose some of the court orders it has been presented regarding the release of customer information. The presiding judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret court that issues such orders, has reportedly indicated to the Justice Department that it expects to declassify orders related to the Yahoo case.
Meanwhile, Levinson said he intends to mount his own legal challenge.
"We've already started preparing the paperwork needed to continue to fight for the Constitution in the Fourth Circuit of Appeals," he wrote in the message to his customers. "A favorable decision would allow me to resurrect Lavabit as an American company."
He concluded, "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."
Opsahl told the Guardian that the fact Levinson was appealing a case before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals indicates the government had a court order for Lavabit's data.
"It's taking a very bold stand, one that I'm sure will have financial ramifications," he said of the company.
"There should be more transparency around this. There's probably no harm to the national security of the United States to have it publicly revealed what are the legal issues here," Opsahl added.
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