Excellent post by Schneier on this topic.
Last month, Levison [owner of Lavabit, now defunct] reportedly received an order — probably a National Security Letter — to allow the NSA to eavesdrop on everyone’s e-mail accounts on Lavabit. Rather than “become complicit in crimes against the American people,” he turned the service off. Note that we don’t know for sure that he received a NSL — that’s the order authorized by the Patriot Act that doesn’t require a judge’s signature and prohibits the recipient from talking about it — or what it covered, but Levison has said that he had complied with requests for individual e-mail access in the past, but this was very different.
So far, we just have an extreme moral act in the face of government pressure. It’s what happened next that is the most chilling. The government threatened him with arrest, arguing that shutting down this e-mail service was a violation of the order.
The collusion of corporate and government surveillance interests is a big part of [the surveillance state], but so is the government’s resorting to intimidation. Every Lavabit-like service that shuts down — and there have been several — gives us consumers less choice, and pushes us into the large services that cooperate with the NSA. It’s past time we demanded that Congress repeal National Security Letters, give us privacy rights in this new information age, and force meaningful oversight on this rogue agency.
The gist: as it stands, companies will comply with secret orders that they can’t talk about and give untold access about all of us to the government, information that the government can use against us at any point. Companies that take a moral stand against this behavior by shutting down could face government harassment and arrest, a fact that will decrease the number of people willing to take a stand. And remember: they are not legally permitted to acknowledge that they are working with authorities or that they’ve received a secret order to do so. This sets a terrible and liberty-ruining precedent.
I’m also curious as to the capacity of the US to retain its dominant status in technical innovation given the scope of the surveillance and the lack of legal options for companies caught in the security establishment’s web.