Welcome to Police State USA

Lavabit, an encrypted email service believed to have been used by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, has abruptly shut down. The move came amidst a legal fight that appeared to involve U.S. government attempts to win access to customer information.

Lavabit owner and founder Ladar Levison is not even allowed to discuss what is going on or why he has been gagged. He cannot even discuss with his lawyer.

Unfortunately, I can’t talk about it. I would like to, believe me. I think if the American public knew what our government was doing, they wouldn’t be allowed to do it anymore.

In a message to his customers last week, Levison said:

I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people, or walk away from nearly 10 years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit.

Levison said he was barred from discussing the events over the past six weeks that led to his decision. Soon after, another secure email provider called Silent Circle also announced it was shutting down.

For six years, the FBI has barred a New York man from revealing that the agency had ordered him to hand over personal information about clients of his internet start-up. Finally allowed to speak, Nick Merrill joins Democracy Now in his first broadcast interview to talk about how he challenged the FBI’s use of national security letters.

In early 2004, Nicholas Merrill, who was running an Internet service provider in New York called Calyx, was issued a national security letter that ordered him to hand over detailed private records about some of his customers. Under the law, recipients of the letters are barred from telling anyone about their encounter with the FBI. While Merrill was not the first American to be gagged after receiving a national security letter, he was the first to challenge the FBI’s secret tactics. Merrill went to the American Civil Liberties Union, which then filed the first lawsuit challenging the national security letter statute. In the lawsuit, Merrill was simply identified as John Doe.

It was only in August 2010, after reaching a settlement with the FBI, that Merrill was able to reveal his identity.

[The case] resulted in the national security letter provision of the PATRIOT Act being ruled unconstitutional twice,” Merrill says. “The problem was, though, we were never able to get to the Supreme Court to get a final, binding ruling that would affect the whole country. … The concern about cybersecurity and the concerns about privacy are really two sides of the same coin. There are a lot of really uncontroversial examples in which organizations and people need confidentiality: Medicine is one, journalism is another, human rights organizations is an obvious third. We’re trying to make the case that if the right of Americans to encrypt their data and to have private information is taken away, that it’s going to have grave, far-reaching effects on many kinds of industries, on our democracy as a whole, and our standing in the world.

If you receive a National Security Letter, not signed by a judge, you cannot discuss it with anyone, not even that you have received one.

Nearly 200,000 National Security Letters have been served.

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