410,000 Lavabit Users Weren’t Edward Snowden
Lavabit founder Ladar Levison shut down his company rather than cooperate with a government investigation. Recent reports indicated that Lavabit's secure e-mail service included NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden among its users. Now the Lavabit website shows only a letter stating in part:
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. It seems that Lavabit has lived up to its mission to be the
e-mail service that never sacrifices privacy for profits.
The Technology Challenges
It is worth taking a moment to consider the technology that makes secure email possible, or impossible, as the case may be. In order for e-mail to be routed to its intended destination, headers and routing protocols must reveal details about the sender and receiver. This is part of the metadata, the data about data, that can be easily collected by government agencies. While this set of simple descriptors may sound harmless, MIT has released a tool called Immersion to show what your email metadata reveals about you and the results are a spectacular map of social relationships and communications. Ethan Zuckerman provides one of the best thoughtful reflections on metadata and surveillance and makes the case that metadata paints a very revealing portrait.
Accepting that there are revelations of metadata necessary to send e-mail, technology can be used for the protection of the message content. A typical free e-mail provider may protect the message when it is in transit but the contents of the message will typically be stored in plain text on the email server where it can be requested by government agencies. Secure e-mail providers, such as Lavabit, use a system that encrypts the contents of the message, but as David Talbot pointed out in his recent article in MIT's Technology Review,
the passcodes used as keys to decrypt messages can be requested by the government (if held by the e-mail company) or simply stolen by sophisticated malware. In an interview with Kashmir Hill, Levison described his service saying that
he doesn’t have the technological capability to decrypt his customer’s data, but if someone could intercept the communication between Lavabit’s Dallas-based servers and a user, they could get the user’s password and then use that to decrypt their data. I think it's safe to assume that the government would have very little trouble intercepting the communication they would need to expose the content of the e-mail.
Given this bleak technological outlook for unbreakable e-mail communications that can preserve user privacy, it is perhaps all the more impressive that Lavabit decided to cease to exist rather than compromise the privacy of its many users. Amy Goodman and Aaron Maté recently interviewed Levison and he stated that
Lavabit wasn’t the first service provider to receive a government request, and we’re not the first service provider to fight it. We’re just the first service provider to take a different approach. And it could very well be because of our size that we have that option. Without congressional action or a strong change in judicial precedent, this is a decision that many more companies may need to make. Rather than waiting for the situation to arise, it may be best to start planning now for how to respond.
Businesses can often become the first line of defense for the privacy rights of their users. The recent choices made by Lavabit reveal that respecting privacy rights of customers and complying with the law can lead to difficult choices. Choices that not every service provider will be comfortable making. But, as Levison said,
this is about protecting all of our users, not just one in particular. His action as a defender of privacy reminds me of the 1982 classic Tron. Tron was the heroic and honest security program who fought for the users.
That's Ladar Levison— he fights for the users. Will you fight for the users?
About the Author
Andrew Clearwater, CIPP/US, is an information law attorney at Binary Legal, LLC with experience providing advice and public policy analysis in the areas of data privacy and intellectual property. He is also an adjunct professor at the Center for Law and Innovation at the University of Maine School of Law in Portland, ME. Recent projects include contributions to the NTIA mobile application transparency discussion, helping to launch a privacy seal program for companies that use consumer energy information and participation as a member of the W3C Tracking Protection Working Group.