By SOMINI SENGUPTA
Ladar Levison was not yet 20 years old when Congress passed the Patriot Act after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. It gave him a start-up idea: an e-mail service for what he thought of as “a tech-savvy crowd” that cared about privacy.
“I’ve always sort of believed it’s important for Americans to have private conversations with other Americans,” Mr. Levison said in a telephone interview Monday, “and not fear that their conversations were being monitored by the government.”
His start-up thrived for nearly 10 years until Thursday, when he abruptly shut it down, leaving little more than an ominous note on the site. He said he did not want to be “complicit in crimes against the American people” and hinted, obliquely, at a government search that he believed to be unconstitutional and that he would challenge in a federal appeals court.
He offered no details in his closing announcement or in the interview on Monday. He is under a gag order that has led him to give up e-mail altogether.
“My principal concern was to give people the ability to communicate privately,” he said. “When I was no longer able to do that I felt I had the obligation to shut down the service.”
Lavabit’s mysterious legal drama began six weeks ago. One of its more than 400,000 users was Edward J. Snowden, the leaker who had worked as a National Security Agency contractor. Mr. Levison has not said whether or what kind of government order he was served with, or how it might have been served.
His lawyer, Jesse Binnall, made it clear that Lavabit had complied with “narrowly tailored” court orders for user information on at least two dozen occasions in the past.
Mr. Levison, now 32 and living in Dallas, added: “What I’m opposed to are blanket court orders granting government access to everything.”
After his announcement last Thursday, a second company, Silent Circle, based in Maryland, said it would close its secure e-mail service. That company said it had not been served with a government order of any kind. In a pre-emptive bid to protect its customers’ data, Silent Circle said it had obliterated everything in its server.
Lavabit, by contrast, still holds the data on its server, Mr. Levison said. He said he was prohibited from saying why, or whether a government order compels him to do so.
“I can’t talk about it,” Mr. Levison said. “It’s frustrating. Even today I don’t know if I’m going to be arrested.”
His lawyer, Mr. Binnall, won’t even say whether he has filed a legal challenge yet, only that they “intend to bring legal challenge to the constitutionality of the government snooping on e-mail.”
Mr. Levison had made a living off Lavabit; the site charged a monthly fee for subscribers who did not wish to see advertisements. “I wasn’t shopping for any Italian sports cars but it paid rent and paid for pizza,” he said.
The shutdown of the service has compelled him to turn to his parents once for financial support. Lavabit has raised $90,000 so far for a legal defense fund, and he says he fears his legal troubles could be “a long, drawn-out battle.”
He says he will look for a job soon, and though he has also spent time with technology, he will not be working in the technology sector. “I don’t want to be put in this position again,” he said.
Maybe he will start a restaurant or bar in or around Dallas, he surmised, “where I won’t have to deal with the F.B.I.”
He quickly added: “Hypothetically speaking.”
Asked whether he has had to deal with the F.B.I. during these last six weeks, he said he could not comment.