Lavabit, secure email service used by Edward Snowden, shuts down

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Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who leaked top secret documents revealing a vast surveillance program by the US government to the Guardian newspaper. The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald interviewed Snowden in a hotel room in Hong Kong and released the video on Sunday June 10, 2013.

Lavabit, the secure email service said to have been used by former National Security Agency contractor and leaker Edward Snowden, has shut down over privacy concerns.

"I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit," the owner of the Texas-based company, Ladar Levison, posted on its website Thursday.

"I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision. I cannot."

According to the BBC, Levison is thought to have sought to block United States officials from accessing his customers' data. 

At least one other company, Silent Circle, decided to withdraw its secure email service in the wake of Lavabit's announcement, saying it saw "the writing on the wall."

Both companies claim to provide better privacy and security for their users than mainstream email services. Lavabit reportedly encrypts emails so they can be read only by the sender and the recipient.

Silent Circle, however, admitted that no online email service could be entirely private. "Email as we know it [...] cannot be secure," co-founder John Callas wrote in a blog post announcing the withdrawal of its Silent Mail service.

He said that the company would rather shut down the service preemptively than run the risk of allowing its users' data to be compromised.

"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.

As GlobalPost reported at the time, Snowden was revealed to have a Lavabit email account by Human Rights Watch's Tanya Lokshina at a press conference in Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport back in July, while the fugutive whistleblower was stuck in diplomatic limbo.

In an unusually candid statement, Levison wrote:

"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 is appealing his case to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, hoping "a favorable decision" will allow him to resurrect Lavabit.

If not, the US government's surveillance programs could prove damaging for similar services, and the US technology sector as a whole, according to the director of civil liberties at the Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society, Jennifer Granick.

"The fact that neither Americans nor foreigners trust the US government and its NSA anymore puts the US communications companies at a severe competitive disadvantage," Granick wrote on the center's blog. "The US government, in its rush to spy on everybody, may end up killing our most productive industry.

"Lavabit may just be the canary in the coal mine."

Meanwhile, two large German internet service providers announced on Friday that they would begin encrypting customers' emails by default.

When initially implemented, the encryption of Deutsche Telekom AG and United Internet AG emails will only be secure between customers of T-Online, GMX and WEB.DE.

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