An encrypted e-mail service reportedly used by whistleblower Edward Snowden shuttered its doors on Thursday, after its owner Ladar Levison posted a notice that hinted at secret government surveillance court orders.
Lavabit, an e-mail service that was initially created to step-around the privacy issues that came with Gmail’s tracking, suspended its services-apparently after refusing a U.S court order demanding 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 ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit,” Mr. Levison wrote in a company blogpost.
The Lavabit founder also expressed frustration over the U.S Government-imposed restrictions on explaining the circumstances that lead to e-mail service’s closure.
“I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision. I cannot. Unfortunately, Congress has passed laws that say otherwise. As things currently stand, I cannot share my experiences over the last six weeks, even though I have twice made the appropriate requests,” he added.
Encrypted e-mail is encoded in such a manner that that eavesdroppers or hackers cannot read the content of an e-mail, even if they have access to it. The only way to decode such a message is through the use of an encryption key.
General e-mail service providers such as Gmail or Yahoo Mail do not use encryption as they mechanically scan their user’s e-mails in order to serve up targeted advertising. The disadvantage here is that when a Government agency comes with a surveillance court order, companies like Google are forced to give up their user’s emails which can then be easily read.
This is where encrypted e-mail providers like Lavabit come in-since it encrypts its user’s e-mail, not even Lavabit is aware of the contents of its user’s email, thus rendering it impervious against most hackers.
According to security analysts, however, Lavabit may have been pressured into making sure that the un-encrypted password for every user be logged somewhere-allowing the U.S Government to have access to all e-mails.
Less than six hours after the Lavabit incident , another similar e-mail service that counts heads of state among its customers, said it was following Lavabit’s lead and would suspend its services as a preventive measure.
Silent Circle, a Maryland-based firm, in a blogpost, however said that it had not received any urging from the U.S Government.
“Yesterday, Lavabit, shut down their system. We see the writing on the wall, and we have decided that it is best for us to shut down Silent Mail. We have not received subpoenas, warrants, security letters, or anything else by any government, and this is why we are acting now,” the company said.