Lavabit founder fought the surveillance state

Founder of encryption service used by Snowden refused to handover encryption keys, unsealed court documents reveal


Natasha Lennard
October 3, 2013 10:15PM (UTC)

Ladar Levison, founder of Lavabit -- the encryption service used by Edward Snowden, repeatedly stood up to government pressure and refused to hand over encryption keys, newly unsealed court documents reveal.

In August, in another act of defiance against the surveillance state, Levison closed down his service so that the government could not breach it. At the time, Levison -- currently the subject of a government gag order -- said he refused to be "complicit in crimes against the American people." The Lavabit founder has also filed appeals against the search warrants and subpoenas demanding access to his service.

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In July the government demanded “all information necessary to decrypt communications sent to or from the Lavabit e-mail account [redacted] including encryption keys and SSL keys. As the Altantic Wire pointed out, "that information would give the government access to all of the company's 400,000 users, all for the metadata of one single user."

"After unsuccessfully fighting that request in court, Levison complied, but not in a way that would make it easy for the government to use the information: he sent the government a printed-out version of the encryption keys, in 4-point font. He took care to choose a font that was nearly impossible to scan, too," the Atlantic reported.

The Guardian noted Thursday that newly unsealed court documents show Levison "repeatedly pushed back against demands by the authorities to hand over the encryption keys to his system, frustrating federal investigators who were trying to track Snowden's communications, the documents show."

Via the Guardian:

The court documents, unsealed on Wednesday, give the clearest picture yet of the Lavabit case. The documents, filed in the eastern district court of Virginia, are redacted and do not mention Snowden by name. But they do say the target of the FBI is under investigation for violations of the espionage act and theft of government property – the charges that have been filed against NSA whistleblower Snowden.

On 28 June the court authorised the FBI to install a "pen register trap and trace device" on all electronic communications being sent from the redacted email address, believed to be Snowden's. A pen register would allow the FBI to record all the "metadata" from the account including the e-mail "from" and "to" lines and the IP addresses used to access the mailbox.

Levison said that the client had enabled encryption on his email and that he could not access the email. "The representative of Lavabit indicated that Lavabit had the technical capability to decrypt the information, but that Lavabit did not want to 'defeat [its] own system,'" the government complained.


Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Edward Snowden Encryption Encryption Keys Fbi Ladar Levison Nsa Privacy Spying Surveillance

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