Prying eyes, heavy hands

Aug. 16, 2013 @ 03:09 PM

This editorial originally appeared in The Virginian-Pilot.

Given enough technical savvy, computing power and time, email can be made secure. Not only from hackers and identity thieves, but from the prying eyes of government.
Washington considers that a threat.
Two major encrypted email providers have now shut their doors, citing pressure from federal officials. What kind of pressure, or to what end, remains unknown because the companies are under orders not to tell anyone. And federal officials, as The Guardian newspaper reported, declined to comment.
"I would like to, believe me," Ladar Levison, owner of Lavabit, told Democracy Now, the liberal nonprofit. "I think that if the American people knew what our government was doing, they wouldn't be allowed to do it anymore. My hope is that the media can uncover what's going on without my assistance."
The fact that federal agencies -- in the name of national security -- have been tracking phone calls and email has been known for some time now. As has the fact that those same agencies are aggregating all that information into databases, which they can search in an attempt to uncover patterns and connections.
For disclosing those details, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden is a federal fugitive now living in Russia.
The ostensible reason for the unprecedented surveillance of Americans is to prevent terrorist attacks. The government assures us that several have been prevented since it started tracking our phone calls, email and Internet use. But it provides no details to support such assurances.
Trust us, the White House urges.
Trust, of course, must be earned. And Washington has earned none of it.
From congressional incompetence through the White House's bankrupt bluster, from an over-reaching security apparatus to a supine press corps driven by conflict and hysteria, America now mistrusts many of its basic institutions. Including the ones that cite unspecified threats against America to justify undermining the nation's basic principles.
According to Ars Technica, both Lavabit and Silent Circle turned off their encrypted email services a few weeks after Snowden used Lavabit to contact a human rights activist.
The fact that government pressure could be deployed in such a fashion is disturbing enough and not just to Lavabit's 410,000 users. But to then threaten the business's officers with jail for discussing the episode smacks of something even more insidious.
Levison said he's planning to challenge the government's actions in a federal appeals court, a strategy that Kurt Opsahl, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The Guardian appears to suggest that pressure was applied to Lavabit through a secret court order.
"This experience," Levison said, "has taught me one very important lesson: 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."
Cover-ups, of course, have a long history in Washington. The federal government has sent out thousands of National Security letters to Americans forbidding them from speaking about ongoing investigations.
That's thousands of Americans who haven't been able to talk about the reach of federal law enforcement. Many generations of crooks in D.C., elected and appointed, would have loved that kind of power.