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Unsealed Court Documents Show What Really Happened To Snowden’s Secret Email Service

Lavabit, a heavily encrypted email provider used by Edward Snowden, mysteriously shut down. Now we know why, and the tricks its founder used to hold off the government for as long as possible.

Unsealed Court Documents Show What Really Happened To Snowden’s Secret Email Service
[Image: Flickr user mw238]

When the founder of Lavabit, the secure email service reportedly used by Edward Snowden, abruptly shut down his site earlier this summer, he set off a chain reaction of events. Founder Ladar Levison obliquely referred to both pressure from the government to hand over information, as well as the suppression of his First Amendment rights, and promised he’d fight whatever he was up against in court.

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It soon became clear that Levison had received a special court order from a government agency, and it likely came with a gag provision. Fearing similar pressure to turn over information about its users, or related surveillance, secure email, phone, and text service Silent Circle shut down shut down its Silent Mail, and technology law site Groklaw shuttered.

Yesterday, Wired‘s Kevin Poulsen broke the news that a federal judge unsealed documents from the Lavabit case in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. It turns out that on June 28, Levison received something called a “pen register” order (if you’re a fan of the Wire, you’ve heard that phrase before), and it ordered him to turn over the metadata for one email account in particular. The order also stated that Levison would not be allowed to disclose that he had even received such a request (i.e. a gag order).

According to the court documents, the government wanted IP addresses associated with the account, dates and times of the messages, as well as email addresses that user had contacted. But in order to pass along this information, Lavabit would have to break the encryption keys it provided to its users.

Levison refused to do this, though a U.S. magistrate judge warned he could be found in criminal contempt. The prosecutors then issued a search warrant for Lavabit’s encryption keys, which could have allowed the government to snoop on any Lavabit user. Levison initially resisted, but eventually passed along his SSL keys–printed out on 11 pages in 4-point type.

When prosecutors asked for a readable, electronic copy, and a judge eventually ordered that Levison be fined $5,000 every day until he complied, Levison shut down the site for good. He’s now trying to raise $96,000 for the ensuing battle in court.

To read the court filings, head here.

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About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data

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