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Lavabit is an email service founded in 2004 that suspended operations in August 2013. It is owned and operated by Ladar Levison.
Lavabit was founded by Texas-based programmers who formed Nerdshack LLC, renamed Lavabit LLC the next year, allegedly prompted by privacy concerns about Gmail, Google's free, widely-used email service, and their use of the content of users' email to generate advertisements and marketing data. Lavabit offered significant privacy protection for their users' email, including asymmetric encryption. The strength of the cryptographic methods used was of a level that is presumed impossible for even intelligence agencies to crack. In August 2013, Lavabit had about 410,000 users and offered free and paid accounts with levels of storage ranging from 128 megabytes to 8 gigabytes.
Connection to Edward Snowden
Lavabit received media attention in July 2013 when it was revealed that National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden was using the Lavabit email address email@example.com to invite human rights lawyers and activists to a press conference during his confinement at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow.
Suspension and gag order
On August 8, 2013, Lavabit suspended its operations, and the email service log-in page was replaced by a message from the owner and operator Ladar Levison. The New Yorker suggested that the suspension might be related to the National Security Agency's "domestic-surveillance practices". Wired speculated that Levison was fighting a warrant or national security letter seeking customer information under extraordinary circumstances, as Lavabit had complied with at least one routine warrant in the past.
Levison explained he was under gag order and that he was legally unable to explain to the public why he ended the service. Instead, he asked for donations to "fight for the Constitution" in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Levison also stated he has even been banned from sharing some information with his lawyer. Meanwhile, the Electronic Frontier Foundation called on the FBI to provide greater transparency to the public, in part to help observers "understand what led to a ten-year-old business closing its doors and a new start-up abandoning a business opportunity".
Lavabit is believed to be the first technology firm that has chosen to suspend/shut down its operation rather than comply with an order from the United States government to reveal information or grant access to information. Silent Circle, an encrypted email, mobile video and voice service provider, followed the example of Lavabit by discontinuing its encrypted email services. Citing the impossibility of being able to maintain the confidentiality of its customers' emails should it be served with government orders, Silent Circle permanently erased the encryption keys that allowed access to emails stored or transmitted by its service.
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