Lawyers raise civil liberties concerns in Lavabit case

The founder of the encryption service was forced to hand over encryption keys to service used by Snowden

By Natasha Lennard

Published February 3, 2014 3:38PM (EST)

The founder of Lavabit -- the email encryption service used by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden -- is challenging a contempt of court order brought against him that forced him to hand over the encryption keys to his service. Deeming the service no longer safe, privacy-wise, for users, Ladar Levison eventually handed over the SSL keys to the government and shuttered his service.

Now civil rights lawyers, arguing in the Fourth Circuit of appeals, are highlighting Fourth Amendment abrogations entailed in the contempt charges that faced Levison when he refused to hand over the encryption keys.

The Guardian reported:

Levison has argued that the government put an undue burden on his business by forcing him to hand over the SSL encryption keys to his service, as part of the FBI’s investigation into Snowden's leak of thousands of documents to media outlets including the Guardian. Levison shut the service shortly after complying and has since argued that the government violated his fourth amendment right prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures.

An American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney, Brian Hauss, said the hearing suggested the court was more interested in the procedural details of the case and Levison’s behaviour than fourth-amendment issues regarding the legal position of a business’s use of encryption.

Wired stressed that a lot is at stake in the Lavabit case. If the Fourth Circuit court rules that it was correct to force Lavabit to hand their encryption keys over to the FBI, a precedent will be set aligning the judiciary with the NSA's ability to access encrypted online information:

If the practice — which may well have happened in secret before — is given the imprimatur of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, it opens a new avenue for U.S. spies to expand their surveillance against users of U.S. internet services like Gmail and Dropbox. Since the FBI is known to work hand in hand with intelligence agencies, it potentially turns the judiciary into an arm of the NSA’s Key Recovery Service. Call it COURTINT.

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

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

Edward Snowden Encryption Fbi Ladar Levison Lavabit Privacy Ssl Keys