The encrypted email service reportedly used by National Security Agency leaker Edward J. Snowden closed abruptly Thursday, with its founder saying that maintaining operations at the company would involve "crimes against the American people."
Ladar Levison, owner of the Lavabit LLC email service, said in a blog posting that he had 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."
Silent Circle, a secure communications provider founded by former U.S. and British special forces operators, followed suit later Thursday. The company said that, while its phone and text services remain secure, it could no longer guarantee users' privacy in emails because its servers are based in the U.S.
"We see the writing the wall," wrote Jon Callas, a Silent Circle founder and inventor of PGP ("Pretty Good Privacy"), one of the most widely used forms of encryption. "We have decided that it is best for us to shut down Silent Mail now [rather than wait for] subpoenas, warrants, security letters, or anything else [from] any government."
Mr. Levison said in his posting that the U.S. government had gagged him from explaining how he was being forced to decide between honoring the Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which prohibits warrantless searches and seizures, and shutting down his business.
"I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision. I cannot," he wrote.
The presence of the gag order suggests that his company may have been subject to an order from the special secret court that oversees the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), or an administrative subpoena for business records under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act.
Both measures prohibit the target of the order from revealing its existence. And both were revealed by Mr. Snowden to have been used by the National Security Agency to authorize its bulk collection of Americans' communications records.
Mr. Levison advised any Americans wanting electronic privacy to choose non-U.S. providers for their communications and data storage services.
"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," Mr. Levison said.
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