“I’m taking a break from email. If you knew what I know about email, you might not use it either.”
This comment was made by Ladar Levison during a phone call with a Forbes reporter on Friday. As the operator and founder of anonymous email service Lavabit, he is more than qualified to talk about the subject.
Readers will remember that Lavabit shut down recently, with an open letter to users. Hours later, Silent Circle also shuttered its email service. In his letter, Levison said he preferred to close the service than to “become complicit in crimes against the American people”.
Edward Snowden was a user of Lavabit's services when he revealed the NSA's covert surveillance to journalists at The Guardian and Washington Post. In typical Internet fashion, it received a surge of popular uptake. More than $12,000 in paid subscribers signed up, tripling his monthly earnings.
Levison is highly restricted in what he can say about Lavabit's closure, though he says that he plans to appeal in the Fourth Circuit, with a request for supporters to donate. As of this morning, Lavabit's defense has reached $90,000 in donations. As Levison says himself, a victory would set a precedent: "If we win, we win for everyone".
As a result of the closure, Forbes has been able to share insight about how Lavabit worked. Customer data was encrypted, with a public and a private key. The private key was password protected. Supposedly decrypting the data was impossible, though if an email was intercepted the password could be harvested and used.