An encrypted e-mail service believed to have been used by US fugitive Edward Snowden shut down abruptly on Thursday amid a legal fight that appeared to involve US government attempts to win access to customer information.
“I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people, or walk away from nearly 10 years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit,” Lavabit LLC owner Ladar Levison wrote in a letter that was posted on the Texas-based company’s Web site on Thursday.
Levison said he has decided to “suspend operations,” but was barred from discussing the events over the past six weeks that led to his decision.
That matches the period since Snowden went public as the source of media reports detailing secret electronic spying operations by the US National Security Agency.
“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,” Levison wrote.
The US Department of Justice had no immediate comment.
Later on Thursday, an executive with a better-known provider of secure e-mail said his company had also shut down that service.
Jon Callas, co-founder of Silent Circle Inc, said on Twitter and in a blog post that Silent Circle had ended Silent Mail.
“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,” Callas wrote on a blog addressed to customers.
Silent Circle, co-founded by the PGP cryptography inventor Phil Zimmermann, will continue to offer secure texting and secure phone calls, but e-mail is harder to keep truly private, Callas wrote.
He and company representatives did not immediately respond to interview requests.
At a Moscow news conference four weeks ago, a Human Rights Watch representative said she had been contacted by Snowden from a Lavabit e-mail address, according to news Web site GlobalPost.com.
Use of effective encryption by regular e-mail users is rare. Some of Snowden’s leaked documents show that Google Inc, Microsoft Corp and other large providers have been compelled to help intelligence authorities gather e-mail and other data on their users.
The big providers and other companies typically offer encryption, but said they cooperate with legal requests, including those by intelligence officials.
Lavabit was something of an outlier, in part because it had said e-mail was encrypted on its servers and could only be accessed with the user’s password.
Snowden has been charged with espionage, but was granted asylum by Russia, prompting US President Barack Obama to scrap a planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Lavabit’s statement suggested a gag order was in place, and lawyers said that could accompany any one of a wide range of demands for information.
The government could be seeking unencrypted versions of Snowden’s e-mail correspondence, other information about him, the technical means to decrypt his future e-mails or those of other customers, or basic information on all of Lavabit’s hundreds of thousands of users.
It is rare and perhaps unprecedented for a legitimate US business to shut down rather than comply with a government request for information, said Kurt Opsahl, an attorney with the Electronic Freedom Foundation, a civil liberties group in San Francisco that is not involved in the case.
Levison said the company has started preparing the paperwork needed to fight in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is based in Richmond, Virginia. He could not be reached for comment.
“All of this tells us the same lesson: Almost nothing we do on the Internet can be protected from government prying and spying,” said Michael Ratner, a US lawyer who has worked for anti-secrecy Web site WikiLeaks, a Snowden ally.
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