Lavabit Commits Corporate Suicide

I was shocked for a few minutes last week after I heard that Lavabit committed corporate suicide. I pondered it for a while and then forgot, but two things this weekend caused me to remember it.

The first was the suicide of Cylon Number One (John) near the end of Battlestar Galactica. I didn’t expect it at all (there were a bunch of things in the last three episodes that I didn’t expect.) The other was Barry Eisler’s tweet about Obama’s statement about the NSA (NSFW) from the weekend (Eisler is one of my favorite Mental Floss writers.)

I didn’t see Eisler’s tweet until Sunday morning because of my digital sabbath and it made me think of Lavabit shutting down. And then I had a moment of fear that I was reading it and considering retweeting it. The thought that crossed my mind was “if I retweet this, will the NSA record it somewhere.” Then I decided this was a fear-based reaction that was absurd, but not irrational.

Then I read Homes for Hackers gets a visit from the FBI. My friend Ben, who inspired me to buy a house in the Google Fiberhood in Kansas City, talks about the FBI poking around in his house because he has gigabit Internet. Now, Ben’s a trusting dude so he let the FBI in and was polite, but he speculates that he’s now got a surveillance device in his bathroom.

We are just beginning to understand – and struggle with – the crossover of humans and technology. When you ponder the NSA, it’s starting to feel like a giant computer run by humans, where the computer dominates and the humans are just the mechanics. Sure – the humans want to feel like the ones who are actually running things, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see this evolving along the same lines as Battlestar Galactica.

I accepted a long time ago that I had no actual privacy – that all of my data was being captured somewhere. I gave a talk at my 20th business school reunion in 2008 where I stated directly that “we no longer had any privacy.” But it’s getting worse – fast. Even if we work hard to have privacy, as in using Lavabit to send email, the government can still break through this privacy, or force the service to shut down.

I’m fascinated by all of this. Not scared – fascinated. It’s easy to be cynical, or scared, or angry. But our civilization is going to evolve in very strange and radical ways over the next twenty years. Hang on – it’s going to be a crazy ride.

  • Griffin Granberg

    I wish you would take a real stance on this issue.. I think the bigger minds/names in the tech startup industry need to be at the forefront of pushing for some realistic expectations of privacy or at the very least a more public path to accessing one’s personal this or that.

    I do not feel a lot of us have anything to really hide, but the fact remains we do still have a constitution and the 4th amendment “entitles” us to “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” I think it would be fair to say that the overreaching of this government at the very least is appalling, and at the very worst extreme violation of our government’s constitution.

    • I have a hard time taking a “real stance” since I feel helpless to actually do anything. Amy and I spend a lot of time talking about this stuff – and it’s evolving very quickly. I’m appalled at the current state of affairs under Obama – I expected something very different six years ago.

      • Chris Mack

        Brad, I don’t believe you have to have a solution in order to take a stance. I agree with Griffin. If you’re appalled by what’s happening, I would certainly appreciate hearing you say/write that. The first step to a solution is to recognize there is a problem. A lot of people do, but not enough, and you have a larger platform than many.

        • I guess I separate “saying I’m appalled” from “taking a stance.” I think I’ve said I’m appalled – and I’ll keep saying it. “Taking a stance” implies some type of action and I’m not sure what that is right now.

          • Chris Mack

            The subtleties of the english language! Thanks for the response. I don’t know what action to take either. So long as its being talked about openly, and opposed by public figures such as yourself I remain fascinated too. When that opposition starts to quiet down (as you talk about in your post above), my fascination turns to fear (and 2nd passports)

      • Brad – In a world where communication is threatened – to communicate those threats is to take a early stance.

        Done early enough it engenders evolution – Left until later it requires revolution.

        Count yourself as a peacemaker

        • Well said. I guess my direct and continued statements that this is unacceptable is a stance. And I’ll keep saying it.

      • I completely agree wrt Obama.

        My feeling is that his weakness is excessive pragmatism. To get things done he is too ready to abandon critical principles.

        The huge dangers of this approach are:
        a) something blows up in your face e.g. drones, NSA
        b) you have abandoned any kind of moral high ground so that even if we stipulate that he isn’t abusing various powers he has seen implemented, what about his successors? If, God help us, a nutcase like Palin were to get her hands on the levers of power and start abusing these tools, the Democrats would be powerless to protest. And the fact that he has encouraged gag orders makes the whole situation trebly apalling.

        Yuck. #notwhatIexpected

  • This has been on my mind a lot lately, too. Like you, I’m self-censoring tweets abt this.

    When we reach (arguably have already) the point that information + unfettered access to it is truly a weapon, how do you defend against a politically-sanctioned power grab like this? When the information is used to harm you (I could provide a dozen references here off the top of my head…), how is that different from sending in the tanks?

    This is a new arms race + the goal is to make the citizenry afraid of *information*.

  • The US has a history of asymmetric power balances regards other nations and technology. I believe this asymmetry will continue but the implications are changing fast.

    Consider symmetry of “friends” in contrast with asymmetry of “follows”. If you don’t want to be “followed” you need not tweet. How might this play out in global economics and politics…

    This most obvious swing to technological imbalanced occurred during WWII when the Allied War machine having at first not “fired on all cylinders”. They eventually won out with superior technology (largely radar, and decryption by the British, transport and communications from the US and long range bombing – and of course, ultimately Nuclear Weaponry. The ultimate of these depended massively on intellectual co-operation and was a close run race.

    The Cold-War (a war for technological symmetry) arose out of the allied a technology vs. conventional armament balance (it was just enough to hold back – but not to beat the 6 million field troops that the Russians had available). The subsequent quest for Soviet technological parity was foreseeable !

    Vietnam and The Gulf wars, teh Soviet Afghan invasion and others saw similar balances of technology against relatively under-resourced but passionate opposition . A new type of War.

    Now when it comes to communications monitoring – little more than logical extension of the British “Enigma” code-breaking triumphs (for which the computer or was invented and conceptually identical to PRISM today) – technology wins !

    But it wins where the enemy is clearly delineated as such – it is not so great against anonymous hordes unless “collateral damage” is wholly ignored. And it wins only if asymmetry is assumed – the next frontier is access !

    If the US continues to push for access – the rest of the world (in seeking symmetrical parity) must push back.

    What the world does not need is a “communications cold-war” – this is exactly what current US policy (and trampling on freedom of speech engenders) – silence.

    In any predictable outcome from economic, political or technological silence (the logical outcome of extensive eavesdropping) the US is neutered from all the benefits it enjoys.

    This is not smart foreign policy.

    Probably need clearer though – but interesting ideas I think.

  • Looks like Kim Dotcom and Mega are joining in the fun –

    • I am fascinated by all this as well, and seeing Mega jump in on the opportunity is really interesting. I am not sure where any of this is going, but just seeing one company shut down and another get up and running basically doing the same thing is remarkable.

    • curious to see which direction hushmail goes… imagine will be lighting up with these types of offerings.


    Does any of this really matter? These days people spend more time with their computer than they do building personal relationships with others. You can’t get people to sit down and solve problems because their brains are addicted to “changing channels” instead of staying focused.
    TV could have been the game changer that educated the masses in K->12 and beyond for free. Cutting down on drug addiction and providing our youth with better lives. But instead it was wasted on foolish programming. Soap operas, reality shows, and other stupid bullshit. The internet is now going the way of the TV and turning into foolishness.
    Technology is being used by the few for great things. But the masses are wasting it on foolishness. All this gov stuff is hinting to people that it’s time to get out and do something with your life. Quit playing with your computer!
    When I was doing programming I worked with many other programmers who spend the whole day typing their asses off. I called them hackers because they hacked at the keyboard. I on the other hand would “think it through” first! Then I would type in only what was needed. I saw people doing 100 hours of work and turing out 10 hours worth of results! It’s the industrial age brainwashing to work hard instead of working smart.
    Have you ever noticed how the best of books are the ones that have you pondering every sentence for ten minutes? Those are authors that think first and type after. How about emails? Have you noticed that some convey the point succintly and others don’t convey anything but a lack of writing skills?
    I think the gov is right. Move away from the internet and go back to personal relationships build in-person!

    • Mark Milliman

      Yeah TV could have been our “giant voice” system. An opportunity missed by the government. How is the government right? I don’t see them saying not to use FB, twitter, Instagram, or anything else other than don’t drink too many sugary drinks.


        The gov is saying go back to knowing your neighbor. We’ll watch the internet for bad guys. While I don’t like *what* is being said. I do think it is time for people to move back to in-person relationship building. The internet is getting too “drunken mosh pit” these days.
        I actually would prefer to say web instead of internet. Computer networks (internet) used for business related work are great. But now you have the gov spying on citizens emails. It’s all getting way to freaky for me. I don’t want to hang out at a crack house and the web is getting a bit too weird for my liking.

        • Mark Milliman

          The reason that they are saying that is so people can keep an eye on their neighbor. Remember DHS’s jingle, “If you see something, say something.”

  • Mark Milliman

    I am amazed that you accept the fact that “we no longer had any privacy” and that you can’t do anything about it. Both of those postulates can be answered together. We should have as much or as little privacy as we want, and we should not accept the fact that we have to surrender our privacy to any corporation and especially the government (that is guaranteed in the Constitution). I do not and will never have a Facebook account. I saw the danger in that site years ago and found no utility in the site. I keep up with my friends in the real world. I haven’t sold my soul to Google either; just the corner I want. I still use desktop applications and store sensitive stuff encrypted on my drives. I send PGP encoded e-mail when I can. True the encryption can be broken and my traffic intercepted.

    This is why we need to do something about it. From a technology point of view we should be developing and utilizing technologies to make the Internet more secure. From a policy point-of-view we should be electing officials and driving policy that supports anonymity and user privacy with corporations and the government. This country tends to elect officials and support policies that benefit the government and corporations and not the individual. This is the exact opposite of the principles of which this country was founded.

    Laws like CALEA, Patriot Act I & II, and many others opened the door for abuse of power. Once that opening has been created, there are always people to exploit it for their own gain. It was too bad that the American people accepted it on the false premise that it would make us safer. Now we have seen the abuses to our Constitutional rights and it is time to correct this grievous mistake.

    Do you really feel powerless to do anything about it? Wasn’t it you that helped to get croud-funding passed? How about all of those additions to “Immigration Reform” regarding H1B visas? It seems to me that you have access to those in the ruling class. I know that at an industry or confederation (like IETF) we can affect change. First of all as another commenter posted taking a stance and making your feelings known is a first step. Second joining up with the EFF and other groups actively doing something about these recent revelations is a good start. Longer term encourage and support more companies involved in individual privacy whether with their products and services or through their EUL. I think that as an industry we would develop a “Users’ Bill of Rights” and request companies comply with them. Mirrored after our own Bill of Rights; it would be short and simple.

    There are things that we can do and you as someone very visible in the start-up and Boulder community can help to rally people. You just have to evolve your disappointment forward to outrage against what this government is doing. Can you say, “Papers Please?”

  • “Pessimism of the intellect. Optimism of the will.”

  • Btw – like you, I have little idea how we little people may effect change on these kind of issues.

    We don’t live in a democracy, we live in a corporate kleptocracy where money talks. Our political process is so corrupted by big money and ongoing lobbying that its outcomes have little to do with elections, rationality or the social good.

    In this world, perhaps our only hope is that the kind of rampant surveillance that is being uncovered is contrary to the interests of some big money.

    The US cloud services providers are waking up to the fact that there is a real movement overseas to find ways of avoiding internet traffic thru the US and any storage on any servers the US has sovereign control of. This is a threat to a multi billion dollar 21st century business. And this threat is provoking high level meetings. Google isn’t going to do a Lavabit but it isn’t going to ignore the threat. Us little guys just don’t matter no matter how loud we scream, but ironically maybe our best hope is big business. $$ talks.

  • I like the realism and positivity in this post. Will try to enjoy the ride. Let’s see 🙂

  • kermit64113

    Brad, like you I am numb to the fact that the information store exists. I am not numb to the fact that there are numskulls in the IRS who will provide confidential tax information about my earnings and sacred/ charitable contributions to politically appointed officials who will in turn provide it to opposition research.

    I an not numb to the fact that political appointees and career government officials will cover up the results and lie about the frequency and depth of the abuse only to “walk back” those comments (or plead the fifth) days later, and then declare the issue “over” because “everything has been disclosed” and declare any further inquiries into the issue “phony scandals.”

    What the current administration has done is small potatoes. Imagine if Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover operated in today’s digital environment. Imagine if Stalin, Mussolini or Hitler operated in today’s digital environment. The size of the digital weapons of mass reputation destruction just got a lot bigger, and Lavabit said “let’s not be an arms merchant.” It’s a big move.

    • Mark Milliman

      I do not share your opinion that it is “small potatoes.” There are multiple abuses across multiple bureaucracies. This isn’t just one small breech. Totalitarianism comes in different flavors and often is accepted by the people. They aren’t aware of the atrocities until after the fact. What Nixon, Hoover, and even Hillary Clinton (Travelgate) did was not nearly as damaging as this. Imagine the if that next person to occupy the Oval Office were to really take advantage of these tools.

      Also don’t be surprised if an Obama involved company begins after he leaves office that uses big data to help elect officials. Guess where some of that data was derived?

      • kermit64113

        No doubt that the data expertise that the Obama team has developed will be monetized after the current administration has left office. And, if they have assembled house-by-house data legally, I think it could be a very effective tool to conduct efficient campaigns. It’s the Lee Atwater effect thirty years later. And, when running for political office, there is an expectation of excessive scrutiny. I’m all for using big data to make campaigns more efficient, when that data is obtained legally.

        My concern occurs when information about tax-paying citizens and their charitable contributions become public knowledge without their consent. Or, when others are tempted to share that information illegally (e.g., faxing tax information from the IRS to a blogger/ reporter) because they deem that it is in the “public’s interest.” It’s too hard to change the law, so let’s be above it…

        Our Constitution was established to protect civil (citizen) rights. Digitization has made it easier to violate those rights. Whether it’s the illegal disclosure of personal charitable contributions (e.g., the amount of giving to my church/ synagogue/ mosque) or medical records (re: the IRS will have an extremely active databasing role in the Affordable Health Care Act) or other information that is private by law, we should make sure that those who break the law (and, when appropriate, the media who are complicit in the dispersion of private information) face unbelievably stiff sentences and penalties.

  • Alexander Peschkoff

    Why should we (deeply) care whether some Gov’t can read our emails or listen to our phone calls?.. (They CAN – in many countries – so what’s the big deal?) Does it REALLY matter?.. (Apart from it being a matter of principle…) What do we have to hide?..

    If someone’s email account was hacked and its content was published on the Internet, the owner would be appalled. But when it happens to somebody else, many are overjoyed – WikiLeaks is a good example (not to mention numerous celebrity-linked cases). Hypocrisy? A secret is a secret irrespective of who it belongs to. Same goes for privacy: we respect ours, why wouldn’t we respect somebody else’s?.. What’s the difference between a hacker and a “whistleblower”?.. If you knew who hacked your account and exposed your private photos, wouldn’t you want to slap that person on the face (or sue him/her)? Would you be told you cannot do that because those photos were “indecent”?..

    On a practical note, if accounts are just “hacked” (without any exposure), why cry “Wolf!”?.. As Brad said, there is no privacy. Get over it, get used to it, carry on with your life, there are tons of other things to be concerned about in this world…

    • StevenHB

      You’re arguing that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” This is the argument used by despots throughout history. While privacy may be vanishing or may have vanished, I don’t think that we should remain complacent about each marginal encroachment, rather, they should be fought tooth-and-nail.

      I hope that some recipient of an NSA letter or Lavabit’s founder will have the gumption to challenge the constitutionality of such orders.

      • Alexander Peschkoff

        Why “HB”?.. Am I being a despot to expect people to use their full real name for such public forum discussions?..

        • StevenHB

          I comment here often. Brad and DaveJ (another semi-anonymous pen name), who I know personally, know who I am. I use a nom de plume simply because I prefer to maintain some separation between my professional life and my personal opinions.

          Now, I made a real point using reasonable, polite language. Spare me the ad hominem attack and deal with the point.

    • williamhertling

      I think we should care because it’s a system that’s subject to abuse. Look at Robbins v. Lower Merion School District (, in which spyware installed on students’ laptops were used by school officials and by the monitoring agency to spy on students in their homes, in various states of dress and undress, to take thousands of screenshots, to monitor their chat with other students. None of that was legitimate use.

      Not only do we have abuse by the theoretically legitimate users of the system, we also have the potential for abuse by illegitimate users. There’s a spyware case, which I can’t track down at the moment, where the government installed spywhere, which compromised the enduser’s computer, but the spyware had a backdoor in it, so it ended up being used by criminal elements to then steal user data. Anywhere we have official backdoors for information, we end up with more potential for that data to get places it shouldn’t go.

      We aren’t aware of it yet, but it also seems likely the data can be abused for blackmail purposes. It doesn’t have to be legally compromising information…it just has to be private, sensitive information: medical records, arguments with a spouse or kids, business correspondence, business plans, etc.

    • kermit64113

      When you are denied a promotion because your employer found out thirty years ago you a) were arrested for a misdemeanor (which was subsequently expunged from your record), b) have a “remote” family history of spousal abuse and/or alcoholism and that c) your recent cholesterol measure was 25-35 points above the norm, that’s when it goes over the top. Especially if the information is incorrect.

      It’s not the presence of data, it’s the misapplication of correlated data in the hands of subjective decision makers that causes concern. Especially when those decision makers seek to limit your freedom (and history is full of such characters and movements).

      • Alexander Peschkoff

        64113, you are confusing issues…

        • kermit64113

          How so?

  • Put John Rain at the NSA!!

  • Technology will aloways move forward… faster, smaller, etc. Privacy is a social issue and will swing back and forth like a pendulum. I believe it will swing the other way within 36 months.

    • kermit64113

      When the IRS (who will administer the Health Care Act) ramps up the collection of data on your family’s office visits, prescriptions, previous medical history including all previous treatments, blood glucose/ blood pressure, cholesterol levels, etc. you think that the issue of potential privacy breeches will go away? What if some rogue agent in the Cincinnati IRS office decides that information is in the “public’s interest?”

      • To be honest, I’m not quite sure what your question is.

        • kermit64113

          When you say “I believe it will swing the other way in 36 months” what do you mean?

          • I mean attitudes about privacy will swing from “eh who cares” to “yes I care and will support companies and elected officials who also care”, for the general public.

  • It seems inevitable that as a society scales up too flatly, individuals become profiles, defined by the groups to which they belong, based on maybe power-hungry heuristics. Limits to human intelligence being what they are, the RDBM takes over. Like sands through the hourglass, these are the less-and-less-private days of our lives.




  • Otter

    Why doesn’t anyone acknowledge the invisible gorilla in the room. There are too many crazy, stupid, idiotic laws on the books and too many people with agendas ready to use them for their own ends.

    For example, Did I drive over the speed limit today? Of course I did, and so did every cop and most every school bus driver. Do I want unlimited access to everything I do?

  • kermit64113

    After tracking comments on the blog, I think Peggy Noonan lays it out pretty clearly in her article today: has the article. The relationship between the First (fundamental freedoms, particularly speech) and Fourth (illegal search and seizure) Amendment to the Constitution are clearly drawn. I had not thought about the implications to the willingness to speak out and whether the misuse of metadata suppressed future activities in the way Peggy outlines. Good reading.

  • Chris Mack

    Now he is being threatened with having violated the court order by shutting his company down.