IAPP-GDPR Web Banners-300x250-FINAL
410,000 Lavabit Users Weren’t Edward Snowden

Lavabit founder Ladar Levison shut down his company rather than cooperate with a government investigation. Recent reports indicated that Lavabit's secure e-mail service included NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden among its users. Now the Lavabit website shows only a letter stating in part: I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit. It seems that Lavabit has lived up to its mission to be the e-mail service that never sacrifices privacy for profits.

The Technology Challenges
It is worth taking a moment to consider the technology that makes secure email possible, or impossible, as the case may be. In order for e-mail to be routed to its intended destination, headers and routing protocols must reveal details about the sender and receiver. This is part of the metadata, the data about data, that can be easily collected by government agencies. While this set of simple descriptors may sound harmless, MIT has released a tool called Immersion to show what your email metadata reveals about you and the results are a spectacular map of social relationships and communications. Ethan Zuckerman provides one of the best thoughtful reflections on metadata and surveillance and makes the case that metadata paints a very revealing portrait.

Accepting that there are revelations of metadata necessary to send e-mail, technology can be used for the protection of the message content. A typical free e-mail provider may protect the message when it is in transit but the contents of the message will typically be stored in plain text on the email server where it can be requested by government agencies. Secure e-mail providers, such as Lavabit, use a system that encrypts the contents of the message, but as David Talbot pointed out in his recent article in MIT's Technology Review, the passcodes used as keys to decrypt messages can be requested by the government (if held by the e-mail company) or simply stolen by sophisticated malware. In an interview with Kashmir Hill, Levison described his service saying that he doesn’t have the technological capability to decrypt his customer’s data, but if someone could intercept the communication between Lavabit’s Dallas-based servers and a user, they could get the user’s password and then use that to decrypt their data. I think it's safe to assume that the government would have very little trouble intercepting the communication they would need to expose the content of the e-mail.

The Choice
Given this bleak technological outlook for unbreakable e-mail communications that can preserve user privacy, it is perhaps all the more impressive that Lavabit decided to cease to exist rather than compromise the privacy of its many users. Amy Goodman and Aaron Maté recently interviewed Levison and he stated that Lavabit wasn’t the first service provider to receive a government request, and we’re not the first service provider to fight it. We’re just the first service provider to take a different approach. And it could very well be because of our size that we have that option. Without congressional action or a strong change in judicial precedent, this is a decision that many more companies may need to make. Rather than waiting for the situation to arise, it may be best to start planning now for how to respond.

Businesses can often become the first line of defense for the privacy rights of their users. The recent choices made by Lavabit reveal that respecting privacy rights of customers and complying with the law can lead to difficult choices. Choices that not every service provider will be comfortable making. But, as Levison said, this is about protecting all of our users, not just one in particular. His action as a defender of privacy reminds me of the 1982 classic Tron. Tron was the heroic and honest security program who fought for the users.

That's Ladar Levison— he fights for the users. Will you fight for the users?

photo credit: tonechootero via photopin cc

Written By

Andrew Clearwater, CIPP/US


If you want to comment on this post, you need to login.


Board of Directors

See the esteemed group of leaders shaping the future of the IAPP.

Contact Us

Need someone to talk to? We’re here for you.

IAPP Staff

Looking for someone specific? Visit the staff directory.

Learn more about the IAPP»

Daily Dashboard

The day’s top stories from around the world

Privacy Perspectives

Where the real conversations in privacy happen

The Privacy Advisor

Original reporting and feature articles on the latest privacy developments

Privacy Tracker

Alerts and legal analysis of legislative trends

Privacy Tech

Exploring the technology of privacy

Canada Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top Canadian privacy news

Europe Data Protection Digest

A roundup of the top European data protection news

Asia-Pacific Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top privacy news from the Asia-Pacific region

IAPP Westin Research Center

Original works. Groundbreaking research. Emerging scholars.

Advertise in IAPP Publications

Find out how to get your message in front the people you want to reach. Download a media kit now.

Get more News »

Find a KnowledgeNet Chapter Near You

Network and talk privacy at IAPP KnowledgeNet meetings, taking place worldwide.

Women Leading Privacy

Events, volunteer opportunities and more designed to help you give and get career support and expand your network.

IAPP Job Board

Looking for a new challenge, or need to hire your next privacy pro? The IAPP Job Board is the answer.

Join the Privacy List

Have ideas? Need advice? Subscribe to the Privacy List. It’s crowdsourcing, with an exceptional crowd.

Find more ways to Connect »

Find a Privacy Training Class

Two-day privacy training classes are held around the world. See the complete schedule now.

Online Privacy Training

Build your knowledge. The privacy know-how you need is just a click away.

The Training Post—Can’t-Miss Training Updates

Subscribe now to get the latest alerts on training opportunities around the world.

New Web Conferences Added!

See our list of upcoming web conferences. Just log on, listen in and learn!

Train Your Staff

Get your team up to speed on privacy by bringing IAPP training to your organization.

Learn more »

CIPP Certification

The global standard for the go-to person for privacy laws, regulations and frameworks

CIPM Certification

The first and only privacy certification for professionals who manage day-to-day operations

CIPT Certification

The industry benchmark for IT professionals worldwide to validate their knowledge of privacy requirements

Certify Your Staff

Find out how you can bring the world’s only globally recognized privacy certification to a group in your organization.

Learn more about IAPP certification »

Get Close-up

Looking for tools and info on a hot topic? Our close-up pages organize it for you in one easy-to-find place.

Where's Your DPA?

Our interactive DPA locator helps you find data protection authorities and summary of law by country.

IAPP Westin Research Center

See the latest original research from the IAPP Westin fellows.

Looking for Certification Study Resources?

Find out what you need to prepare for your exams

More Resources »

GDPR Comprehensive: Registration Open

New! Intensive two-day GDPR training led by the sharpest minds in the field. It's a can't-miss event.

The Congress Is Cancelled

The IAPP Europe Data Protection Congress 2015 is cancelled. Click through to learn more.

Sponsor an Event

Increase visibility for your organization—check out sponsorship opportunities today.

Exhibit at an Event

Put your brand in front of the largest gatherings of privacy pros in the world. Learn more.

More Conferences »

Become a Member

Start taking advantage of the many IAPP member benefits today

Corporate Members

See our list of high-profile corporate members—and find out why you should become one, too

Renew Your Membership

Don’t miss out for a minute—continue accessing your benefits

Join the IAPP»