US President Barack Obama’s administration has created a surveillance state on a scale not seen since former US senator Joe McCarthy’s infamous 1950s crackdown on suspected communists, according to the tech executive caught up in the crossfire between the US National Security Agency (NSA) and whistleblower Edward Snowden.
“We are entering a time of state-sponsored intrusion into our privacy that we haven’t seen since the McCarthy era and it’s on a much broader scale,” Lavabit founder Ladar Levison told the Guardian.
The e-mail service was used by Snowden and is now at the center of a potentially historic legal battle over privacy rights in the digital age.
Levison closed down his service this month, posting a message about a government investigation that would force him to “become complicit in crimes against the American people” were he to stay in business.
The 32-year-old is now stuck in a Kafkaesque universe where he is not allowed to talk about what is going on, nor is he allowed to talk about what he is not allowed to talk about without facing charges of contempt of court.
It appears that Levison — who would not confirm this — has received a national security letter (NSL), a legal attempt to force him to hand over any and all data his company has so that the US authorities can track Snowden and anyone he communicated with. That he closed the service rather than comply may well have opened him up to other legal challenges — about which he also cannot comment.
What he will say is that he is locked in a legal battle he hopes one day will finally make it clear what the US government can and cannot legally demand from companies.
“The information technology sector of our country deserves a legislative mandate that will allow us to provide private and secure services so our customers, both here and abroad, don’t feel they are being used as listening posts for an American surveillance network,” Levison said.
In the meantime, what he will not do is stay silent — within legal limits.
“I will stand on my soapbox and shout and shout as loudly as I can for as long as people will listen. My biggest fear is that the sacrifice of my business will have been in vain. My greatest hope is that same sacrifice will result in a positive change,” he said, words that closely echo Snowden’s own feelings about becoming a whistleblower.
Levison first heard of Snowden when he revealed himself in the Guardian in June. The first he knew about Lavabit’s involvement was when Snowden used a lavabit.com account to announce a press conference at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, where he was left in limbo following his flight from Hong Kong.
“It’s not my place to decide whether what Snowden did is right or wrong,” Levison said.
“I understand the need for secrecy. I understand that the government needs to keep the names of people they are currently investigating and doing surveillance on secret. I am wholly opposed, and find it contrary to our way of life, for the government to keep the methods that they use to conduct that surveillance a national secret. What they are really doing is using that secrecy to hide un-American actions from the general public,” he said.
The extent of government surveillance illustrated by Snowden’s leaks shows that the Obama administration is willing “to sacrifice the privacy of the many so they can conduct surveillance on the few,” Levison said.