The NSA's headquarters in Maryland. Photo via
This week, two encrypted email providers shut down their services, and that’s very bad news if you’d rather the government didn’t read your private communications.
The first company, Lavabit, closed after founder Ladar Levison announced that after a decade of running his secure email service (which is supposedly the one Edward Snowden used to deliver his NSA leaks to the Guardian), he was being forced to shut it down or “become complicit in crimes against the American people.”
Ladar’s official statement is vague, but you can hear him clench his teeth as he writes, “I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision. I cannot.” It certainly sounds like he was asked to hand over data or open his servers in a secret court; since he refused, he had to walk away from his business. Chillingly, Ladar finished his statement with a stern warning about American-based communications services: “I would _strongly_ recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States.” So basically, he’s saying you’re fucked if you store confidential information on Facebook, Gmail, Skype, Twitter, or any cloud service owned by Microsoft or Apple.
Just hours after the announcement from Lavabit went up, Silent Circle—an encrypted-communications company that had just become profitable in May and was forecasting 2 to 3 million subscribers by the end of 2013—shut down its own email service. While they say the US government hadn’t made any move to compromise Silent Circle’s secure email service, Jon Callas, one of Silent Circle’s founders, wrote that the company can “see the writing the wall” and concluded it was “best for us to shut down Silent Mail now.” (The company plans to continue to provide encrypted phone and text services.)
This message is in sharp contrast to the more optimistic tone Jon took in an interview with VICE last month. “In Silent Circle’s view, every person in this world, regardless of their station in life or religion, should expect a level of basic human privacy,” he said back then. “And many of the people on the internet have no understanding on what level they are giving that up.”
With the shutdown of these two services, it’s clear that the US government is worried about private encryption technology—in other words, the good news is that these companies’ security techniques are working, the bad news is that the government won’t allow them to exist. Clearly, the right to buy and sell on the free market and the right to privacy only apply to people who don’t piss off US intelligence agencies. Entrepreneurs are being forced to chose between immoral cooperation with the surveillance tactics their products are meant to combat and losing their businesses entirely—which is all the more absurd since they don’t seem to have violated any law and haven’t been charged with any crime.
As Edward Snowden told the Guardian, “Ladar Levison and his team suspended the operations of their ten-year-old business rather than violate the Constitutional rights of their roughly 400,000 users… America cannot succeed as a country where individuals like Mr. Levison have to relocate their businesses abroad to be successful. Employees and leaders at Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, and the rest of our internet titans must ask themselves why they aren't fighting for our interests the same way small businesses are.”
The situation resembles what happened in the aftermath of the raid on popular file-sharing site Megaupload last year. Back then, two similar services—Uploaded.to and Filesonic—shut down on their own, while other sites were quick to distance themselves from evil piracy in an attempt to prevent their own businesses from being crushed by the government. Evidently, taking out one tech company in a vicious and authoritative fashion is an effective way to shut down their competitors, too.
Like much of what the intelligence community does, the crackdown on encrypted emails was largely secret—we still don’t know what exactly Lavabit did that the powers that be had an issue with, or who made the decision to target that company. It’s the polar opposite of transparency in government, and it echoes something Julian Assange told VICE’s Royce Akers in an interview we aired last week: “The desire to be seen as a vicious authority that can terrorize people is higher than the desire to be seen as an authority that commands respect, as a result of its integrity."
The government’s presumed rationale for shutting down Lavabit is that terrorists and other unnamed bad guys could use encryption for evil. Yet the idea that because a few people are committing crimes using a product it means that no one can use it is deeply paranoid and strange, especially in a country that is supposed to value free speech and the free market. Yesterday, it came out that the NSA is monitoring the content, not just the metadata (which is valuable enough on its own), of text messages and emails of Americans who are talking with, or even about, foreigners. With every new story revealing that the government monitors more and more of our supposedly private information, the idea that the authorities will essentially ban encryption is extremely disturbing. This is, quite clearly, not a positive direction for an allegedly free society to be taking.
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire