updated 09:55 pm EDT, Thu May 22, 2014
Unsealed documents involving the case allow Levison to speak on ordeal
In an interview with Democracy Now, Lavabit founder Lavar Levison was able to detail his struggle against the US government, which would eventually cause him to shut down his secure email service. Previous court documents were sealed, leaving Levison unable to comment on his experiences and court battle. A judge unsealed parts of the record this week, allowing Levison to shed light from his point of view on the story surrounding the shuttering of his venture.
Levison detailed his struggle with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and court systems regarding the request for access under "technical assistance." This request, which included access to secure sockets layer (SSL) encryption keys, was fueled by the agency's interpretation of telecom tracing laws. He alleges that FBI agents had begun to ask for SSL keys at the beginning of the whole process, starting with a visit with a warrant on June 28, 2013. This is also when he says the agency issued a pen register trap and trace order.
"Well, in my particular case, the agents believed that that [the law] included the authority to demand my SSL encryption key," says Levison. "When I first appeared in court, the judge agreed with me that something as proprietary and secret as a private encryption key did not qualify as technical assistance. And what's important is that he said in that same hearing that 'that was why I signed a SCA search warrant for that information.'"
Claims are levied by the Lavabit founder that he was never allowed to have a proper day in court, due in part to being put through a "show trial, in secret" without proper representation. He says that once he was able to find a lawyer and filed to quash the warrant, the judge ruled against him based on the details of the original government brief. This led to his ability to appeal the ruling being waived, because he was found in contempt not long after the warrant hearing, in spite of his attempts to protest it.
More alarming is Levison's allegation that the government was looking for a way to invade the privacy of all 400,000 of his customers, according to details that came out during the process. According to him, information came out about the government collecting data from other sources, mostly other providers. The only data they couldn't collect was when users were logging in and out of the service.
He claims that the documents, which aren't released to the public, show that the government had gone after encrypted data, encryption keys and source code to be able to go through information. It was Levison's view that the government had planned to overstep its authority if he provided them with the information they requested.
"It wasn't until the appellate hearing that the prosecutor even admitted that the only information they couldn't collect without the SSL keys was when the user was logging in and when the user was logging out," says Levison. "And that's because all of the other information that they were authorized to collect is sent from service provider to service provider in the clear."
Rather than risk compromising the privacy and security of his customers, Levison saw shutting down Lavabit as his only option. "The only option I had left was to shut down. Either that or, exactly like my letter said, become complicit in what they were planning -- which was the mass surveillance of all of my customers."