The Hero Tech Entrepreneur Giving Up Everything to Protect User Privacy

Instead of giving in to government demands -- he isn't allowed to say what -- the creator of encrypted email service Lavabit closed up shop.

Why did Ladar Levison shut down his email company, Lavabit -- a closure so painful that he likened it to putting his pet to sleep? Unless he walked away from 10 years of hard work, the Obama Administration would have forced him "to become complicit in crimes against the American people," the 32-year-old said in a cryptic statement. "The government tried to bully me," he later told Kashmir Hill of Forbes. "It's amazing the lengths they've gone to to accomplish their goals."

Rather than comply, he closed up shop.

His story begins with the passage of the Patriot Act, when he was 19 years old. "It gave him a start-up idea: an e-mail service for what he thought of as 'a tech-savvy crowd' that cared about privacy," The New York Times reports. A believer in the proposition that "it's important for Americans to have private conversations with other Americans," he built a successful business that grew in relative obscurity until six weeks ago, when he learned, along with the rest of the world, that Edward Snowden was one of his almost half a million users. That's when the mystery begins.

The government ordered him to do something -- but what? Here's part of his interview with the NYT:

His lawyer, Jesse Binnall, made it clear that Lavabit had complied with "narrowly tailored" court orders for user information on at least two dozen occasions in the past. Mr. Levison, now 32 and living in Dallas, added: "What I'm opposed to are blanket court orders granting government access to everything."

And he told Hill:

This is about protecting all of our users, not just one in particular. It's not my place to decide whether an investigation is just, but the government has the legal authority to force you to do things you're uncomfortable with. The fact that I can't talk about this is as big a problem as what they asked me to do.

The fact that he can't talk about what he was asked to do is a scandal in itself. "I mean, there's information that I can't even share with my lawyer, let alone with the American public," Levison said. "So if we're talking about secrecy, you know, it's really been taken to the extreme. And I think it's really being used by the current administration to cover up tactics that they may be ashamed of." The idea that he's being forced to keep information from his own lawyer is chilling.

But here's the part of the interview that grabbed me the most:

"Some people have suggested moving the service overseas," said Levison. "Even if I found somewhere secure overseas, it would be hard logistically. My life is here in the States. It would be hard for me to move to another city let alone another country." He says he'll only start operating again if his case sets a precedent. "It needs to be clear that the government can't do what they're trying to do," said Levison. "Otherwise the same request is going to come right back at us. Other big names aren't able to shut down in protest. I'm one person without a bunch of employees to support. If we win, we win for everyone."

If the shutdown is a permanent one, Levison would be walking away from $50,000 to $100,000 in annual revenue, his primary source of income. He also walked away from his personal email address, which was shut down along with all the other Lavabit accounts. "I'm taking a break from email," said Levison. "If you knew what I know about email, you might not use it either."

His story might as well be called, "Patriot Protests Patriot Act." In a country where countless thousands are enriching themselves via the military industrial complex, as well as the booming surveillance state economy, a guy with a company he loves and a comfortable life is giving it all up because he refuses to be complicit in the secretive acts of a government he regards as abusive. And the fact that he can't tell us any more is corroborating evidence that it is in fact abusive.

I mean, there's information that I can't even share with my lawyer, let alone with the American public. So if we're talking about secrecy, you know, it's really been taken to the extreme. And I think it's really being used by the current administration to cover up tactics that they may be ashamed of. - See more at:
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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