nettime's secret court staffer on Sat, 10 Aug 2013 23:30:18 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Interview with Lavabit's Ladar Levison

On an phone interview with CNET and Jesse Binnall, Levison's 
Virginia-based attorney, about the decision to shutter Lavabit, Levison 
spoke about the connection between Lavabit and the Patriot Act, how he 
thinks the laws regarding privacy ought to change, and how the American 
government is failing to uphold the U.S. Constitution.

__What's the key issue here? Why did you shut down Lavabit?

Levison: For me it wasn't about protecting a single user, but protecting 
the privacy of all my users, coupled with the fact that I wasn't able to 
discuss it publicly.

I believe that people have the right to know what their government is 
doing. I had an issue with me doing what they wanted me to do without 
them disclosing it.

We've had a couple of dozen court orders served to us over the past 10 
years, but they've never crossed the line...

__Until now?

Levison: I can neither confirm nor deny "until now." Are you familiar 
with the case of Aaron Swartz, familiar with the accusations of 
prosecutorial misconduct? There may be parallels between that case and this.

__If you could write the legislation covering privacy and electronic 
communication, what would it say?

Levison: One of the things that would be nice to come out of this would 
be that the court shouldn't be able to make binding decisions that are 
secret. If there's going to be legislation from the bench, so to speak, 
it needs to be open to review from the American public.

Just the idea of secret laws, so to speak, bothers me tremendously. That 
should almost be a constitutional change.

We've shown that some of our most important freedoms can't be trusted to 
Congress, they need to be placed in the Constitution. Going beyond that, 
as an Internet service provider, there needs to be a more clear 
definition of our protections.

Right now, as a third-party litigation, we effectively have no rights. 
There's no legal framework that we can fight with or against anything 
that is unjust. They're abusing their secrecy to hide their surveillance 

I think that there's a lot more that will come out, and that needs to 
come out. I obviously can't tell you what was happening and what I know, 
and I was uncomfortable with it. I'd rather shut down my service and my 
primary source of income than be complicit in crimes against the 
American people.

__In the current situation, are there any bright red lines that you 
wouldn't cross?

Levison: It's unfortunate that even our own lawmakers don't have a good 
understanding of what's going on.

Philosophically, I put myself in a position that I was comfortable 
turning over the information that I had. I built Lavabit in a reaction 
to the original Patriot Act. I didn't want to be in a position to turn 
[user data] over without judicial review.

Where the government would hypothetically cross the line is to violate 
the privacy of all of my users. This is not about protecting a single 
person or persons, it's about protecting all my users. What level of 
access to this nation does the government have?

__How did the Patriot Act influence your e-mail service?

It played a big role in how I designed the custom platform. All I needed 
when somebody registers was a name and a password. I didn't need a real 
name, address, social security number, credit card number... Why should 
I collect that info if I didn't need it? [That philosophy] also governed 
what kind of information I logged.

Speaking philosophically, I think people who hold other people's private 
information and money have an obligation to be more open to the public. 
That principle of openness has become a key issue. It's definitely 
become an issue as it relates to some of the recent coverage in the media.

The current administration is not being transparent and open about what 
it is they're doing, even to members of Congress.

__How have Lavabit's users reacted?

Levison: It's overwhelmingly positive. Some of them are understandably 
frustrated that I had to shut down without notice. I lost my one and 
only e-mail account over the past 10 years, as well. I feel my decision 
was the lesser of two evils.

__What happens to your customer's e-mails and data?

Levison: I'm looking into setting up a site where users can download 
their data and set up a forwarding [e-mail] address, but that may take a 
week or two to set up. That's all I can do until I feel confident that I 
can resume the service without having to compromise its integrity.

I will make it clear that I don't plan to use any encryption for that 
site. [People] should only use it if they feel comfortable with the 
information being intercepted. And yes, I do plan to have that 
disclaimer on the site.

Unfortunately, what's become clear is that there's no protections in our 
current body of law to keep the government from compelling us to provide 
the information necessary to decrypt those communications in secret.

I'm still looking at seeing if that's even logistically feasible -- 
there's half a billion messages [sent in the 10 years Lavabit operated]. 
By shutting down the service, I will be losing the infrastructure that I 
used to support all those people.

There's stuff that I can't share with my own lawyer. This is going to be 
a long fight.

__What made Lavabit successful?

Levison: Lavabit at the time of the shutdown had 410,000 users, with 
40,000 weekly log-ins, 200,000 e-mails sent a day -- 1.4 million e-mails 
a week.

We were in a very narrow category of what I like to call medium-sized 
providers. Once you get over the 50,000 to 100,000 user threshold, 
e-mail becomes a very difficult problem of scale. It's why you see so 
many e-mail providers come and go.

We managed to break through that barrier by building a custom platform 
to handle it. It's similar in architecture to some of the big guys 
[Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, which combined provide Web mail to more 
than 1 billion people].

__How did Lavabit get started?

Levison: I've been a geek my entire life. I was with a group of college 
friends of mine, that was how an e-mail service by geeks, for geeks, 
came about. [It was called] Nerdshack, with an emphasis on security and 
privacy. It had POP and IMAP access. For a long time we were the only 
free POP service.

__How do you identify yourself politically?

Levison: I'm a conservative Republican. I believe in small government 
and keeping our government out of our business. But I'm from California, 
and if there's one thing we love in California, it's being able to speak 
our mind. I love God and guns, too. Texans are big on freedom. I'm 
probably a blend of [California and Texas] at this point.

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