The FBI fined, threatened, and forced Ladar Levison to suspend the operation of his secure email service, Lavabit LLC, telling the entrepreneur that his users were more likely to trust the government than him.
This year, the government demanded that Levison turn over his private SSL (secure socket layer) so that the FBI could investigate a single user account allegedly belonging to NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
“By taking these keys from me they were able to unlock everything coming in and out…gaining access to email content, passwords, and credit card numbers,” Levison told The Daily Caller in an interview. The keys allowed the FBI to “masquerade” as Levison himself, giving the agency administrative access to his system.
“They were completely unwilling to provide any kind of transparency back to me to assure me that the only information they were collecting was the information on this one specific user,” said Levison. “Users trusted me to protect their private information and I was essentially opening up the doors wide for the feds to come in and take whatever they wanted.”
Levison said he was willing to provide the FBI limited access to what they wanted, but the bureau told him that was not sufficient, insisting on full access.
He recalls lead prosecutor Jim Trump asking, “Do you really think users trust you over us?” Levison answered in the affirmative and Trump replied that Levison was “lucky” he had not already been arrested.
“I was outnumbered eight to one,” said Levison speaking of his interaction with federal agents. “They were taking offense that I was saying these things. They didn’t seem to understand at all what they were doing.”
Levison said the FBI responded to concerns about overreach by saying, basically, “Don’t worry. We’re the federal government. We wouldn’t do that.”
And the FBI wanted a lot more access than to just one account, Levison said. “I had an FBI agent that came to my home office saying that they wanted to collect content, wanted to collect passwords. I could not in good conscience turn over these keys and let them have unaudited access.”
According to Levison, the worst part was being under court-sanctioned gag order, leaving him unable to explain his self-described “existential crisis” to customers. “How do you fight a law that nobody knows exists?” said Levison, “I was having trouble sleeping. It was a huge problem for me ethically.”
Instead of willfully handing over the SSL keys, Levison went to court, but he was eventually ordered to comply, with a $5,000 per day penalty if he refused.
So in August, Levison suspended the operations of his company indefinitely — a decision that led to contempt of court charges against him. Levison told TheDC that he did not technically have to shut down operations but was “forced by [his] moral code” to do so.
Levison’s case currently sits in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals where his lawyers argue that it is a violation of Levison’s Fourth Amendment rights for the government to take his SSL keys.
In the event he loses his legal battle, Levison intends to turn his service over to someone abroad. “In the interim, I’m looking into transforming Lavabit from a services company into a software company,” said Levison.
“Eventually the reporters will stop calling and I’ll realize I’m unemployed,” Levison said. “It goes to show how far the feds are willing to go to get what they want.”
The FBI declined a request for comment for this report.