Ladar Levison, founder of email service provider Lavabit, finds himself in a Kafkaesque situation after the NSA ordered him to hand over any and all data his company had on all of its users. The reason for this intrusion was the former NSA-employee turned whistle-blower – Edward Snowden.
It turns out that Snowden used a Lavabit email account and his former employer is desperately trying to track him and all of his communications. This has put Levison in a rather peculiar situation where he could potentially “become complicit in crimes against the American people.”
Instead, Levison decided to close his business and delete all data stored and he’s been slapped with a gag order so tight that he is not even allowed to talk about what he’s not allowed to talk about.
“We are entering a time of state-sponsored intrusion into our privacy that we haven’t seen since the McCarthy era. And it’s on a much broader scale,” Levison said in a recent interview and later added: “My biggest fear is that the sacrifice of my business will have been in vain.”
Levison was unaware of Snowden’s Lavabit account until the whistle-blower used it to announce a press conference at Moscow’s airport. This did not stop the security agency from, allegedly, sending Levison a national security letter where they demanded his cooperation.
The fact that the businessman closed down his service rather than play ball, may very well provide for other legal challenges – challenges he obviously cannot comment on.
“It’s not my place to decide whether what Snowden did is right or wrong. I understand the need for secrecy. I understand that the government needs to keep the names of people they are currently investigating and doing surveillance on secret,” Levison said.
In the wake of 9/11, the US Congress passed the controversial Patriot Act, which essentially removes some basic judicial and civil rights – all in the name of security of course.
This was when Lavabit became more sophisticated in terms of protecting its users messages through encryptions. The company didn’t store any non-essential information on its users either. No names, addresses, no phone numbers, and no alternative emails.
Levison and Snowden are now at the forefront of the debate over privacy. Both the US and the UK have adopted laws and regulations that give their law enforcement agencies rights to break their own countries’ constitutions, by stopping people randomly and asking to search them and demanding identification.
Some say George Orwell’s dystopian vision of the future – 1984 – where “big brother” is watching your every move is already here.