Snowden’s Email Provider Abruptly Shuts Down, Issues Cryptic Statement About Government Surveillance

Demonstrators in Berlin hold placards featuring a photo of Edward Snowden.

Photo by JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

NSA leaker Edward Snowden might be beyond the reach of the U.S. government in Russia. But that doesn’t appear to be stopping the authorities from trying to snoop on his email provider.

Back in July, it was reported that Snowden was using an email account provider by the small privacy-focused Texas-based company Lavabit. But in an abrupt move, the company shut down its service Thursday, saying in a statement that it had taken the decision on the grounds that it refused to become “complicit in crimes against the American people.” The statement, written by Lavabit’s owner Ladar Levison, hints that he was served with some sort of surveillance gag order. He says that he cannot share his experiences over “the past six weeks” and is taking up a legal case to “fight for the Constitution” in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The statement concludes:

This experience has taught me one very important lesson: without congressional action or a strong judicial precedent, I would _strongly_ recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States

The intriguing development strongly suggests that Lavabit has been served with a secret order from the government demanding that it turn over user data. The timing suggests that such a request, if it exists, could be connected to the Snowden affair. It was first publicly revealed in mid-July—about four weeks ago—that Snowden was apparently using a Lavabit account to communicate with human rights groups. However, if Lavabit has been fighting an attempted data grab for six weeks, as was suggested in its statement, it is possible that the government was already aware Snowden was using the service prior to the public reports.

Lavabit was apparently founded in about 2004 by a group of programmers from Dallas. The company boasted on its website that it could strongly encrypt stored emails “for customers that use e-mail to exchange sensitive information,” and its ethos was to provide a privacy-centric, ethical email service. For that reason, it is highly likely that the team behind the service would have been sympathetic to Snowden, a man who has exposed mass surveillance programs, and would have opposed any government attempt to obtain his emails.

Whether or not this directly concerns Snowden, the fallout from this case will be interesting. It is extremely unusual for email companies to aggressively fight government surveillance demands, let alone shut down entirely in protest over the snooping. Lavabit had more than 60,000 customers, all of whom will now presumably need to move to another provider. The company said in its statement that it will resurrect the service if it wins the Fourth Circuit court case and is asking for donations to help with the legal battle. No doubt that, amid a climate of serious concern about the scope of U.S. government surveillance, the company will have plenty of backers.