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Encrypted Email Services Shuttered Amid Snowden Investigation


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

Two companies that have advertised email services that would cloak users communications are shutting down. The government apparently thinks that one of these companies may have information relevant to an investigation. Lavabit was used by NSA leaker Edward Snowden. In a letter to users, Lavabit's founder said a legal battle with the U.S. government forced the closure.

He said he was barred from describing the nature of the case. Hours later, a second encrypted email service, Silent Circle, closed down as well. Joining us now to help puzzle through what may have happened, NPR's Steven Henn. And Steve, first, just explain to us what an encrypted email service is.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Sure. It's exactly what it sounds like. Lavabit was founded in hopes of offering an email service that didn't create a huge cache of personal communications that the government or maybe others could tap into and read. So all the messages held on its servers are encrypted. The thing is, because of how email is designed, many computer scientists say ultimately it's pretty much impossible to make email completely secure.

Basically that has to do with the fact that people use different systems to connect. So if I send you an email from Lavabit but you have a Gmail account, that message has to be deciphered before you can read it. And at that point, my message isn't going to be protected. The government or someone else could be grabbed it. It's also possible that the government could use the courts to require a company like Lavabit to turn over its encryption keys and then use those keys to look at all my old archived messages.

In fact, it was that fear that inspired this second company, Silent Circle, to shutter its own security email system yesterday.

CORNISH: But, Steve, what's known about Edward Snowden's use of Lavabit.

HENN: Not a lot. You know, we know he used a lot of that account to set up a press conference in Moscow in the airport last month, but we can't even know for certain if the legal case that led Lavabit's owners to close their business was related to Snowden's account. The court records are sealed and there's a gag order on thi case.

CORNISH: And what has Lavabit said about why it shut down?

HENN: Well, again, not much because of that gag order. But the owner, Ladar Levison, published an open letter yesterday saying that while he couldn't legally share with his users the events that led to his decision to close, he was going to appeal his case to the fourth circuit. The strong implication is that he decided to shut down his business that he's been running for 10 years, because he was forced to choose between complying with a government order he didn't believe in or closing.

CORNISH: And did the closure of this second service, Silent Circle, have anything to do with Lavabit shutting down?

HENN: Well, yes and no. Silent Circle offers a number of secure communication services, including encrypted instant messaging and voice over IP calls. And their clients include big oil companies, even parts of the U.S. intelligence community. Both the U.S. and British special forces use their services. Basically, executives there told me they could no longer promise that their email on their services were as secure as their other products.

And they didn't want to risk their client information being captured, so they closed the service and destroyed all the archived emails. And this actuallt brings up another point. Folks at Silent Circles and actually the owner of Lavabit, both warned that this kind of government surveillance ultimately could undermine U.S. technology firms abroad. And the fear was echoed today in a report by the Information Technology Innovation Foundation. It estimated the NSA spying scandal could cost cloud computing companies more than 21 and $35 billion in lost international business just over the next few years.

CORNISH: That's NPR's technology correspondent Steve Henn. Steve, thank you.

HENN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.