Lavabit owner Ladar Levison told RT that he had no choice but to close his email service because the FBI, in pursuit of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, forced him into an ethical dilemma by demanding he hand over customers’ personal data.
RT: The FBI demanded you hand over encryption codes to collect data from a specific account that is not named in the documents. What was your initial response?
Ladar Levison: That’s actually not correct. What they demanded were the SSL keys that were protecting all the data coming in and out of my network for all of my users, and that’s what I had an issue with. I’ve said before that I took the stance that I did not to try and protect a single person but because I was concerned about the invasion and the sacrificing of everyone’s privacy rights that were accessing my system.
RT: We were led to believe that you had been threatened to be charged with criminal content if you did not comply. Do you feel those threats would have eventually become reality if you didn’t follow suit?
LL: Oh, I know they would. In fact they went on to charge me $5,000 a day for every day that I didn’t turn over those keys, which is why I was eventually forced to hand them over. Given the difficult choice of remaining silent about what I thought was a grave injustice or taking, like you said, the lesser of two evils and shutting down the service. I just wasn’t comfortable knowing that they were examining all the data that was coming in and out of my network without any kind of transparency or auditing by myself to ensure that they were only collecting the information they were legally authorized to and continuing to run the service with that knowledge. So I made the only decision I felt was appropriate. In terms of being arrested, I think the only reason they didn’t is because if they had the system would have had nobody to maintain it. That’s one of the advantages of being a small business owner, you wear many hats.
RT: The former NSA chief joked that he could have put Edward Snowden on some sort of a list. Many people have since speculated what type of list it could it be. Could it be a hit list, perhaps? Now, that seems tasteless. It doesn’t seem like a funny joke to me, but how far is the government willing to go to cover up their actions or to stop these email encrypted systems?
LL: As far as they’re concerned, they should be able to force [someone in my position] to do anything humanly possible to aid in their investigation…They definitely feel like what they’re doing is right and they just look at it as, you know, they’re going after a criminal. They don’t see the implications of what they’re doing. But from my perspective, somebody who’s been entrusted with protecting the privacy of my users, protecting their most private information – you know your email address is effectively the heart of your online identity. Everything else you do online is tied to an email account, and to allow them access to everyone’s email account, to allow them to intercept passwords, credit card numbers, new user registrations, to be able to collect IP address information, and then to be able to do it without telling anybody what they were doing or who they were collecting information on. Well, I was completely uncomfortable with that. I just shuttered to think.
RT: You ran a small business basically but what do you think about larger corporations like Google? They are now going to the US courts, suing the government to try to clear their name and not have any affiliation with the NSA. What do you think about that?
LL: The fact is if you’re a domestic company, you don’t deal with the NSA directly. You deal with the FBI. It’s actually put the FBI in what I think is a tenuous, unethical position because they’re now the slaves to two masters: they do the work on behalf of the Department of Justice in terms of domestic law enforcement investigations, and they do the work of the NSA by interacting with companies like my own who cooperate here domestically. If I were a foreign company, the NSA either would have broken into my servers electronically or found a local asset to do it for them physically. That’s part of the reason I didn’t want to move my system abroad. At least here in the US they try and use the court system to compel you to do stuff. But it’s pretty scary to think about what lengths they’re willing to go to conduct these investigations.