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Published on Oct 7, 2013

In August, Lavabit became the first technology firm to shut down rather than disclose information to the U.S. government. Lavabit owner Ladar Levison closed his encrypted email company after refusing to comply with a government effort to tap his customers’ information. It has now been confirmed the FBI was targeting National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, who used Lavabit’s services. But Levison says that instead of just targeting Snowden, the government effectively wanted access to the accounts of 400,000 other Lavabit customers.

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Lavabit founder refused FBI order to hand over email encryption keys

Unsealed documents show Ladar Levison, now subject of government gag order, refused requests to ‘defeat its own system’

Lavabit, the encrypted email service

Court ordered Levison to be fined $5,000 a day beginning 6 August until he handed over electronic copies of the keys. Photo: Demotix/Alex Milan Tracy/Corbis

The email service used by whistleblower Edward Snowden refused FBI requests to “defeat its own system,” according to newly unsealed court documents.

The founder of Lavabit, Ladar Levison, repeatedly pushed back against demands by the authorities to hand over the encryption keys to his system, frustrating federal investigators who were trying to track Snowden’s communications, the documents show.

Snowden called a press conference on 12 July at Moscow’s international airport, using a Lavabit address. The court documents show the FBI was already targeting the secure email service before the invite was sent.

Levison is now subject to a government gag order and has appealed against the search warrants and subpoenas demanding access to his service. He closed Lavabit in August saying he did not want to be “complicit in crimes against the American people”.

The court documents, unsealed on Wednesday, give the clearest picture yet of the Lavabit case. The documents, filed in the eastern district court of Virginia, are redacted and do not mention Snowden by name. But they do say the target of the FBI is under investigation for violations of the espionage act and theft of government property – the charges that have been filed against NSA whistleblower Snowden.

On 28 June the court authorised the FBI to install a “pen register trap and trace device” on all electronic communications being sent from the redacted email address, believed to be Snowden’s. A pen register would allow the FBI to record all the “metadata” from the account including the e-mail “from” and “to” lines and the IP addresses used to access the mailbox.

Levison said that the client had enabled encryption on his email and that he could not access the email. “The representative of Lavabit indicated that Lavabit had the technical capability to decrypt the information, but that Lavabit did not want to ‘defeat [its] own system,'” the government complained.

In July, the authorities obtained a search warrant demanding Lavabit hand over any encryption keys and SSL keys that protected the site. Levison was threatened with criminal contempt – which could have potentially put him in jail – if he did not comply. Such a move would have given the government access to all of Lavabit users’ information.

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