“We use encryption every day to protect information. Encryption is effectively part of our everyday life,” he said. “It’s that little lock you see in your browser every day. Every time you go to the bank or visit PayPal.”
The US authorities did ask him on a couple dozen occasions to hand over information on certain users and he did.
“I never intended the service to be anonymous. There are things that I could have done that would have catered to criminals that I would not do,” he said. “I was always comfortable turning over what I had available.”
Levison cannot comment on the specifics of what made him so uncomfortable this time that he closed his business, but it was clearly a difficult decision.
“I walked away from 10 years of my life, tens of thousands of man hours that I had yet to benefit from,” he said. “I had to choose whether or not to compromise my ethics and my moral code to stay in business or do what I thought was right and shut down the business.”
As the NSA documents have shown, other larger companies have faced similar dilemmas and, often after legal battles, acquiesced and cooperated with the authorities.
“If it’s illegal to offer a private way to communicate to Americans, I didn’t want to remain in the e-mail business,” he said. “I think our Constitution guarantees our right to communicate privately without fear of government surveillance, but the fact is [the US] Congress has passed laws that say otherwise.”
Lavabit’s closure has inspired others to follow suit. Silent Circle, another encrypted communications service, shut down its e-mail program shortly after Lavabit.
Silent Circle founder Phil Zimmermann, who created the widely used Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) data encryption and decryption computer program, said he had seen “the writing on the wall.”
Pamela Jones, known as PJ, closed her award-winning blog Groklaw last week, citing Levison’s decision to shutter Lavabit.
“The owner of Lavabit tells us that he’s stopped using e-mail and if we knew what he knew, we’d stop too,” she wrote in a final post.
“I’m not a political person, by choice, and I must say, researching the latest developments convinced me of one thing — I am right to avoid it,” she wrote. “What I do know is it’s not possible to be fully human if you are being surveilled 24/7... I hope that makes it clear why I can’t continue. There is now no shield from forced exposure.”
Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, said Levison, along with Snowden and others, were at the forefront of a debate over privacy that had been simmering since Sept. 11, 2001, and was now coming to a head.
“This is a very dangerous moment for these individuals,” she said.
There are numerous legal issues here — not just about encryption, but about also about a person’s right to publicly defend themselves, Greenberg said.
“I don’t think legal precedent can tell us what is going to happen here. We are in a new conversation about how broadly national security letters can be used,” she said. “What this illustrates is the way in which secrecy absolutely chills the conversation. He [Levison] is already treading on thin ice; if he talks at all, he could be up on charges of contempt.”