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Edward Snowden’s E-Mail Provider Defied FBI Demands to Turn Over Crypto Keys,


The U.S. government in July obtained a search warrant demanding that Edward Snowden’s e-mail provider, Lavabit, turn over the private SSL keys that protected all web traffic to the site, according to to newly unsealed documents.

The July 16 order came after Texas-based Lavabit refused to circumvent its own security systems to comply with earlier orders intended to monitor a particular Lavabit user’s metadata, defined as “information about each communication sent or received by the account, including the date and time of the communication, the method of communication, and the source and destination of the communication.”

The name of the target is redacted from the unsealed records, but the offenses under investigation are listed as violations of the Espionage Act and theft of government property — the exact charges that have been filed against NSA whistleblower Snowden in the same Virginia court.

The records in the case, which is now being argued at the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, were unsealed today by a federal judge in Alexandria, Virginia. They confirm much of what had been suspected about the conflict between the pro-privacy e-mail company and the federal government, which led to Lavabit voluntarily closing in August rather than compromise the security it promised users

“The privacy of … Lavabit’s users are at stake,” Lavabit attorney Jesse Binnall told Hilton. “We’re not simply speaking of the target of this investigation. We’re talking about over 400,000 individuals and entities that are users of Lavabit who use this service because they believe their communications are secure. By handing over the keys, the encryption keys in this case, they necessarily become less secure.”

Courtroom sketch of Claude Hilton in federal court in Alexandria, Va. in 2004. Image: AP/Dana Verkouteren

By this point, Levison was evidently willing to comply with the original order, and modify his code to intercept the metadata on one user. But the government was no longer interested.

On August 8, Levison shuttered Lavabit, making any attempt at surveillance moot. Still under a gag order, he posted an oblique message saying he’d been left with little choice in the matter.

“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,” Levison wrote at the time. “After significant soul searching, I have decided to suspend operations.”

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