Snowden’s Email Provider Risked Contempt of Court to Protect His Users’ Privacy

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 3 2013 12:32 PM

Snowden’s Email Provider Risked Contempt of Court to Protect His Users’ Privacy

170248179
Edward Snowden speaks during an interview in Hong Kong.

Photo by The Guardian via Getty Images

In August, Edward Snowden’s email provider Lavabit abruptly shut down after issuing a cryptic statement about refusing to become “complicit in crimes against the American people.” Now, more details have emerged about the government surveillance request that prompted the dramatic closure.

According to newly unsealed court documents, it turns out that the Texas-based company was asked to hand over the private encryption keys that secured all Internet traffic to the site. The privacy-focused email provider, of which former NSA contractor Snowden was reportedly a user, was apparently targeted shortly after Snowden outed himself as being responsible for leaking documents about secret surveillance programs.

The court records show that Lavabit was first served with an order demanding metadata on an unnamed customer on June 10, just one day after Snowden went public in a video interview with the Guardian. A couple of weeks later, on June 28, Lavabit was served with a separate so-called “pen register” order requiring it to provide the government with information showing the “to” and “from” lines on every email, plus IP addresses used to access the mailbox, as Wired reported Wednesday. Putting himself at risk of being held in contempt of the order, Lavabit founder Ladar Levison refused to comply with the demand, stating that the targeted user had “enabled Lavabit’s encryption services, and thus Lavabit would not provide the requested information.”

Government prosecutors, likely highly irritated by Levison’s noncompliance, then went one step further. In July, they obtained a search warrant demanding that Lavabit turn over “all information necessary to decrypt communications sent to or from the Lavabit e-mail account [redacted] including encryption keys and SSL keys.” This additional order appears to have been the final straw for Levison, who was already uneasy about the earlier requests. By handing over the encryption keys, his attorney told the court, all of Lavabit’s more than 400,000 users would be compromised, and their use of the service would “necessarily become less secure.”

In an apparent bid to buy himself some time, Levison handed the government a copy of the encryption keys—but in an illegible 11-page printout in 4-point type. He was told that if he did not hand over an electronic copy of the keys he would face $5,000-a-day fines beginning Aug. 6. Instead of complying, Levison took the extraordinary step of shutting down Lavabit for all users on Aug. 8, later commenting in an interview with CNET that the closure “wasn't about protecting a single user, but protecting the privacy of all my users.”

While Snowden is not named in any of the documents, it is now almost certain the targeting of Lavabit is linked to the Justice Department’s criminal investigation into his leaks. The charges listed in the documents are alleged violations of the Espionage Act and theft of government property, the same charges filed against Snowden. Levison is currently trying to raise funds as part of an effort to fight the surveillance attempt in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, with opening briefs in the case expected later this month.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
  Life
Gaming
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 PM Should You Freeze Your Eggs? An egg freezing party is not a great place to find answers to this or other questions.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.