As his legal woes mounted, Levison and his lawyer, Virginia-based Jesse Binnall, set up a fund in the hope of raising some cash.
“If there’s one thing the government has, it’s no shortage of lawyers. My own tax dollars are being used to spy on me,” he said. “If you took all the people we currently have employed as peeping toms and turned them into school teachers, we’d have a much smarter country.”
Levison said he is overwhelmed by the support he has received. The fund already has US$140,000 — most of it in US$5 and US$10 donations.
“Mainstream America is starting to realize just how easy it is for their government to spy on them and more importantly, they are realizing that their government is spying on them,” he said.
The extent of all this surveillance would have a “chilling effect on democracy,” he said.
Sitting in an office near his Dallas home, Levison looked by turns angry and determined. His dog Princess played at his feet, begging for treats. We go on and off the record, as he constantly attempts to parse what he can and cannot say.
Levison is not an easy man to get hold of. His telephone rings off the hook, he does not answer it unless he knows the number, nor does he listen to voicemail. He has no e-mail now that his own service is shut down and relies on texts or Facebook to stay in touch.
“I’m not sure I trust any electronic communication that involves any commercial service,” he said.
Is it very frustrating? I asked.
“I’m not sure I am allowed to say,” he replied.
Lavabit was originally designed as “e-mail by geeks for geeks,” Levison said.
After university, he bought the name Nerdshack.com and was looking to do something with it. E-mail seemed like a good bet.
“I wasn’t thinking about security at all,” he said.
What eventually became Lavabit was a service aimed at tech-savvy, heavy e-mail users — people exchanging 100-plus messages a day. Then came the Patriot Act and Levison decided he could — and should — offer more to his clients.
The Patriot Act was introduced in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US, handing new powers to the US authorities to gather information.
“All of a sudden, we felt vulnerable. We were willing to sacrifice basic freedoms. Like the freedom to communicate, to associate, for an enhanced feeling of security,” Levison said.
Obama was a critic of the act before his election, but Levison believes the government’s willingness to push that authority has only expanded under his presidency.
“What we have seen in recent years is their willingness to use those laws in ways personally I consider to be unconstitutional, unethical and immoral,” he said.
The act led Levison to make several “very conscious decisions.”
He would not log or collect any information that was not a technical necessity. No names, addresses, no mobile number, no alternative e-mails.
“I didn’t need to know that,” he said. “I was removing myself from the equation.”
However, he still had his clients’ e-mails. So Lavabit offered a system that allowed users to encrypt their e-mails in a way that they could only be read by someone with a password key — a key Levison did not keep.
The idea was to protect people’s e-mails from phishers, scammers and unwanted intrusions. He finds it difficult to understand why people think there is something nefarious about using encryption.