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Snowden’s email service Lavabit consistently denied US govt access despite intimidation

2013-10-03_04_40_08_siThe Federal Bureau of Investigation secretly obtained a court order compelling Lavabit, the email service used by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, to hand over its private SSL key, thereby allowing the FBI to monitor Lavabit’s users.

The FBI order was handed down on July 16, according to Wired,  shortly after Lavabit refused to bypass the company’s internal  security systems to facilitate a government request asking the  email provider to trace the internet IP address of an individual  user.

Government documents indicate that the FBI sent Lavabit a  so-called “pen register” order on June 28, forcing the  Texas-based company to record the connection information  belonging to a particular user each time that user logged in to  check his or her email. Lavabit was then required to turn that  data over to the government.

The pen register came down just weeks after the first Snowden  leaks were published in the Guardian and The Washington Post.  Among the unveiled programs was PRISM – a massive electronic data  mining program employed to collect and store communication data  extracted from internet companies including Google, Facebook,  Microsoft, and others.

While the identity of the FBI’s Lavabit target was not disclosed  in the filings, the suspect is described as having committed  violations under the Espionage Act, indicating with near  certainty that Snowden was the motivating factor.      The June 28 order, as seen by Wired, required Lavabit to turn  over all “technical assistance necessary to accomplish the  installation and use of the pen/trap device.”

When the company – which is now embroiled in a court battle with  the government – refused to comply, authorities filed a motion to  compel, saying the single user “enabled Lavabit’s encryption  services, and this Lavabit would not provide the requested  information.”

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 order went  on.

Prosecutors soon asked that founder Ladar Levinson and Lavabit be  held in contempt “for its disobedience and resistance to these  lawful orders.” A search warrant was issued demanding “all  information necessary to decrypt communications sent to or from  the Lavabit email account [redacted] including encryption keys  and SSL keys.”

A search warrant and SSL key would grant the government  unobstructed access to Lavabit’s servers, and a court informed  Levinson that he would be fined $5,000 each day he refused to  hand over the necessary information.

I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become  complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from  nearly 10 years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit,”   Levinson wrote on August 8. “After significant soul searching, I  have decided to suspend operations.”

Now embroiled in a costly legal battle, Levinson has already  raised over $20,000 to pay the necessary legal fees. That makes  up half of Levinson’s goal, he said, because unfortunately   “defending the constitution is expensive.”

UPDATE: Lavabit  has issued a statement in response to aforementioned revelations.

“The vast majority of the court records in Lavabit LLC’s fight  for internet privacy and security are now public. Although most  of the documents have been redacted, 23 court orders, pleadings,  and other documents are now available to the public while the  case is on appeal in the Fourth Circuit.

Lavabit was created so every law-abiding citizen has access to  a secure and private email service. During an investigation into  several Lavabit user accounts, the federal government demanded  both unfettered access to all user communications and a copy of  the Lavabit encryption keys used to secure web, instant message  and email traffic. After having a motion to quash the search  warrant was denied by Judge Claude Hilton of the U.S. District  Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Notably Judge Hilton  served on the FISA Court from 2000 through 2007. Judge Hilton  subsequently issued a $5,000 per day contempt of court citation  thus forcing Lavabit to surrender their encryption keys. Ladar  Levison, the owner and operator of Lavabit, then made the  difficult decision to suspend operations and “limit the damage to  user’s 4th amendment right to privacy.”

The statement goes on to remind users and privacy advocates that  by suspending operation, Levinson has come to rely on donations  to fund the ongoing legal battle. It also describes how the new  information about the NSA has led to a massive uptick in  subscriptions.

While catering to a niche market for most of it’s history, the  recent revelations about American surveillance efforts caused  what Mr. Levison describes as a “massive increase in user  registrations, usage and revenue in our final month of  operation.” When the service was suspended on August 8th, it  boasted over 410,000 registered users, of which approximately  10,000 were paying $8 or $16 a year for premium features like  encrypted storage.”


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