Ladar Levison has lost in the US 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. We've all read Orwell, and casually discussed the notion of "Big Brother," but there are some people that have experienced the disruption of privacy firsthand. Friday at 5 p.m. is usually a great time of day. It's the end of the week. Maybe you cut out of work early to get a start on the weekend. Ladar Levison was doing just that -- checking his email before heading out for the evening -- when the knock came. When Levison opened the door, he found two FBI agents.
In our latest episode for A TOTAL DISRUPTION, we sit down with Levison, founder of Lavabit, an encrypted email service that he created to keep emails completely private and protected. If you haven't heard of Lavabit or Levison, then you've certainly heard of Lavabit's most famous user -- Edward Snowden. America's notorious whistleblower used Lavabit to invite reporters to Moscow, which caught the attention of the Feds. Within six weeks, Levison, who'd been working on Lavabit for nearly a decade, shut the service down because the American Government wanted him to hand over the SSL key -- essentially pulling the veil back on his 400,000 customers' data.
We first met Ladar on his way to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals to challenge a decision that forced him to turn over the SSL key. Levison believes the demand to turn over encryption keys exceeds the government's authority, no matter what their so-called "trap and trace" statutes say. Levison has argued the government placed an incredible burden on his business by forcing him to hand over the SSL encryption keys. Levison closed down Lavabit shortly after turning them over and has argued the government "violated his fourth amendment right prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures." Levison's appeal was rejected, which means he will be held in contempt of court. At this point, it's unlikely the broader legal issues he was fighting against and rights he was fighting for will be resolved.
When Levison expressed concern over the scope of the warrant, they replied, "Trust us. We're the American government." A political science major, Levison knows well the full history of this country and the intentions of its founders: "Our constitution was designed to protect the people from its leaders." This made Levison very apprehensive about his role. As he states firmly, he would become "complicit in crimes against the American People."
"They wanted to collect content, they wanted to collect passwords, presumably so that they could decrypt the messages that had already been stored on the servers, and that they were going to install a device on my network to do this," Levison recalls. When Levison relayed to them that all of the information would be useless without the SSL key, which would decrypt the messages, they told him he would have to hand that over too.
Levison, a proud American who comes from a long line of small business owners, felt turning over the key would be a betrayal to his customers. "I really understood that your email address was at the heart of your online identity, and if it became compromised, then anything that was linked to it could also become compromised," Levison says. He created Lavabit specifically to protect people's privacy: "I used my own service, and therefore I created one that I was comfortable using, that I felt was secure enough to tie to my bank account."
And so he refused Uncle Sam. "If I had turned over these SSL keys to the FBI, from a security perspective it would have been game over," he says. Levison took a principled stance: "[the question is] whether or not the government has the right to access everyone's communications without any kind of oversight or any kind of control." The magistrate judge sided with the government, and Levison was forced to turn over the key. He obliged by printing out the code across hundreds of pages, knowing full well it would take the FBI weeks to sort through the information and manually enter the code on there end, which would allow him time to safely transfer all of the data to a more secure location.
"The definition of privacy [is] the ability to control what others know about you," says Levison. Though Snowden put Levison in the crosshairs of the American government, his views on Snowden are complicated. "How do yo have a debate about mass surveillance when you have no idea whether or not mass surveillance is going on? Until recently, it was more of a fear than a reality," says Levison.
Levison appealed the decision, both as a concerned business owner, and because of his belief in why this country was founded. Says Levison, "Freedom is the ability to do something that somebody else disagrees with. To make a choice that somebody else wouldn't make." He sees far reaching implications for the government's intervention, "The problem with disrupting our right to privacy is that at the same time we do that, we disrupt our right to free speech. And without the ability to speak freely, a democracy is no longer a democracy." Levison certainly feels the weight of our flagging democracy today. This is a dark day for this entrepreneur, whose integrity and passion were palpable when I met with him. I imagine we'll see even greater protection protocols from Levison with Dark Mail, as he has witnessed firsthand just how quickly our right to privacy can be obliterated.