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EDITORIAL: A big stick for a little guy

A small company stands up to the surveillance state

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The Obama administration is running profitable businesses aground and their employees onto the unemployment line, but the owner of Lavabit, a small email-service provider in Texas, is threatened with criminal prosecution for closing its doors.

Unlike Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and other email providers who are collaborating with the government to ensure that personal emails can be collected, analyzed and potentially read by government agents without a judicial order, Lavabit offered its customers actual privacy as a selling point. Lavabit differentiated itself from its large competitors by offering significant privacy protection to its 410,000 users, encrypting all emails with methods that are very difficult to crack.

Nobody cared about Lavabit until administration officials realized that Edward Snowden was a customer. The surveillance state swooped down on the owner of the company, Ladar Levison, demanding he turn over information about his customers. Rather than violate their privacy, Mr. Levison shut down Lavabit, telling his customers, "I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly 10 years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit. After significant soul searching, I have decided to suspend operations. I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision. I cannot. I feel you deserve to know what's going on — the First Amendment is supposed to guarantee me the freedom to speak out in situations like this. Unfortunately, Congress has passed laws that say otherwise ... . 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."

NBC News reports that the U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria sent an email to Mr. Levison's lawyer threatening contempt charges. This suggests the government was attempting to install "backdoor" access to Lavabit's emails, or there's a national security letter forcing him to cooperate with the government regarding the Snowden investigation. Mr. Levison says he has been threatened with arrest a half-dozen times already for shutting down the company.

Disclosure that the National Security Agency violated the privacy rights of thousands of Americans every year since 2008 gets a collective yawn from many members of Congress. Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican, called the reports of privacy violations a "grab bag of misinformation and distortion," suggesting it's not worth his time to be concerned.

James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, admitted lying to Congress about the existence of the domestic spying program, saying he gave the "least untruthful" answer to a Senate committee. He later abandoned that evasion and said "my response was clearly erroneous." President Obama went on "The Tonight Show" to tell Jay Leno, "There is no spying on Americans. We don't have a domestic spying program."

Mr. Levison, and now everyone else, knows that's not true. Unless Congress stands up to protect the Constitution, the surveillance state will continue to trample on the rights of the people.

The Washington Times

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