The website shutdown comes just weeks after two providers of secure email, Lavabit and Silent Circle, opted to discontinue their services. Lavabit founder Ladar Levison did so to avoid becoming "complicit in crimes against the American people," presumably a reference to a U.S. government demand for customer data and an accompanying gag order. Silent Circle, aware of Lavabit's shutdown, preemptively shut down its Silent Mail service, under the belief that the company could not provide the promised security in the current legal climate.
The problem is that email is fundamentally insecure and cannot be kept private in the face of sweeping government surveillance and legal process, despite supposed constitutional protections.
[ Will Google Glass help government spy on citizens? Read Google Glass To Arm Police, Firefighters. ]
Citing LavaBit founder Ladar Levison's observation that if we knew what he knew about email, we wouldn't use it either, Groklaw founder and editor Pamela Jones said she cannot continue to operate her community-based website, which often relies on confidential tips, without some degree of email privacy.
"There is now no shield from forced exposure," said Jones, who contends constant surveillance makes it impossible to be fully human.
As if to demonstrate the irresistibility of government demands, Jones's decision came shortly after the editor of The Guardian revealed that in the past month British security officials demanded and carried out the destruction of hard drives containing data provided to the paper by whistleblower Edward Snowden. It also followed reports that David Miranda, partner of reporter Glenn Greenwald, who helped publish information revealed by Snowden, was detained for nine hours under U.K. terrorism laws and had his electronic devices seized.
In a tweet, Privacy International remarked that the closure of Groklaw "demonstrates how central the right to privacy is to free expression" and that the mere threat of surveillance is enough to inhibit discourse through self-censorship.
Surveillance has an additional cost: It drives businesses away from the United States. The Information Technology and Innovation Institute, a technology think tank, estimates that U.S. cloud service providers, unable to assure privacy, could lose between $22 billion and $35 billion to competitors in Europe over the next three years.
To understand how that might happen, look no further than Jones' recommendation for those who cannot give up online life entirely. "If you have to stay on the Internet, my research indicates that the short term safety from surveillance, to the degree that is even possible, is to use a service like Kolab for email, which is located in Switzerland, and hence is under different laws than the U.S., laws which attempt to afford more privacy to citizens," she wrote.
Given the extent to which U.S. authorities have been able to force cooperation from Swiss banking officials, it would probably be unwise to assume there's much security for data anywhere.