Lavabit owner risks arrest for not complying with surveillance order

The incessant revelations fueled by the documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden have made people reevaluate their expectations of privacy and their beliefs on what the US intelligence and law enforcement agencies are or are not able to do and what they actually do.

Still, when Ladar Levison, owner and operator of secure webmail service Lavabit, announced the shut down of the service so that he didn’t have to “complicit in crimes against the American people”, the decision came as a surprise to many.

Maybe it’s because Google and Microsoft and other US Internet giants didn’t close up shop when asked to participate in NSA’s surveillance efforts, and so they expected smaller companies to bend to the pressure and follow suit?

Nevertheless, what Lavabit and (on the same day) Silent Circle proved is that heading a privately owned company allows much more leeway when it comes to ethical decisions and protecting its customers’ privacy.

Hats off to Levison and Phil Zimmermann and company for their decision, which they know will have repercussion. For Silent Circle, the consequences are less dire as they still offer other services and have not closed down their Silent Mail service as a direct reaction to an official, legal request.

For Levison the decision had a massive economic impact, and he has been forced to turn to his parents for financial support. Donations have been pouring in to the Lavabit Legal Defense Fund, and will be used for mounting a legal defense to be submitted to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in the hopes that the court will decide that he doesn’t have to comply with the authorities’ request.

Not that we know what that request was, and Levison is forbidden to make public that information. As it is known that he complied with a number of court orders regarding specific users in the past, it is speculated that this request was for service-wide surveillance.

So far, he hasn’t complied but he also didn’t delete data regarding Lavabit users from the servers, probably because he has been barred by law from doing so.

And according to NBC News, Levison could also ultimately be arrested for doing what he did. According to a letter sent by a senior litigation counsel in the U.S. attorney’s office in Alexandria, Virgina, to his attorney after he announced the service’s shut down, Levison stands accused of violating the court order he received, which can possibly lead to his arrest for contempt of court.

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