When Lavabit, the secure email provider widely thought to be used by government leaker Edward Snowden, shut down in August, its founder said, "I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision."
Now a batch of freshly unsealed court documents has made his wish come true, showing the efforts to which Lavabit's Ladar Levison went to protect his customers.
According to court papers obtained by Wired and The New York Times, a federal court in Virginia, at the FBI's request, ordered Levison to hand over so-called "metadata" -- showing who is emailing whom, but not the messages themselves -- on one Lavabit email customer accused of violating the Espionage Act.
That customer's name is redacted in court papers, but Snowden was accused of violating the Espionage Act, for leaking documents to journalists at The Guardian and elsewhere about the National Security Agency's online spying activity.
By design, Lavabit can't read messages or even metadata if the sender chooses to encrypt, as was the case with Snowden, without great difficulty. When Levison refused to comply with the court order, the government took its efforts a step further, asking for information to help decrypt Lavabit customers' emails. That would have given government agents unfettered access to all emails sent on Lavabit, though the government's prosector assured that "there’s no agents looking through the 400,000 other bits of information, customers, whatever."
So Levison complied -- backhandedly. He printed out the expansive string of numbers and letters that comprised his site's encryption keys, on 11 pages of 4-point, largely illegible font. The government balked at the papers and asked for a digital copy.
The first of the 11 pages submitted by Levison.
After days of dragging his feet, with $5,000-a-day court fines piling up, Levison supplied the data. But he also shut down his email service, thwarting the government's ability to read any more emails. "After significant soul searching, I have decided to suspend operations," he wrote in a post on Lavabit's website. Despite a gag order on the case, Levison went on a mini press junket to discuss what he could.
"Our federal government has the power to take all of your money and your freedom, and they've shown no shame in using those powers to get what they want and to punish people who speak out against them," he told HuffPost Live.