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As F.B.I. Pursued Snowden, an E-Mail Service Stood Firm - NYTimes.com


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Prosecutors, it turned out, were pursuing a notable user of Lavabit, Mr. Levison’s secure e-mail service: Edward J. Snowden, the formerNational Security Agency contractor who leaked classified documents that have put the intelligence agency under sharp scrutiny. Mr. Levison was willing to allow investigators with a court order to tap Mr. Snowden’s e-mail account; he had complied with similar narrowly targeted requests involving other customers about two dozen times.

But they wanted more, he said: the passwords, encryption keys and computer code that would essentially allow the government untrammeled access to the protected messages of all his customers. That, he said, was too much.

“You don’t need to bug an entire city to bug one guy’s phone calls,” Mr. Levison, 32, said in a recent interview. “In my case, they wanted to break open the entire box just to get to one connection.”

On Aug. 8, Mr. Levison closed Lavabit rather than, in his view, betray his promise of secure e-mail to his customers. The move, which he explained in a letter on his Web site, drew fervent support from civil libertarians but was seen by prosecutors as an act of defiance that fell just short of a crime.

The full story of what happened to Mr. Levison since May has not previously been told, in part because he was subject to a court’s gag order. But on Wednesday, a federal judge unsealed documents in the case, allowing the tech entrepreneur to speak candidly for the first time about his experiences. He had been summoned to testify to a grand jury in Virginia; forbidden to discuss his case; held in contempt of court and fined $10,000 for handing over his private encryption keys on paper and not in digital form; and, finally, threatened with arrest for saying too much when he shuttered his business.

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