Lavabit founder confirms feds' Snowden spy efforts led to encrypted email service shutdown

Judge lifted Ladar Levison's gag order earlier this month

Lavabit founder Ladar Levison last week confirmed what had been an open secret: That he shuttered his encrypted email service in 2013 because of the federal government's pursuit of former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden.

In a statement issued June 24, Levison said that the gag order that had enforced his silence had been lifted. "After three years, and five separate attempts, the federal judge overseeing the case has granted Mr. Levison permission to speak freely about [the] investigation," the statement read.

On June 13, U.S. District Court Judge Claude Hilton unsealed a trove of case documents and simultaneously removed the gag order. "All non-disclosure orders applying to Mr. Ladar Levison and Lavabit, LLC in the above captioned matter are vacated," Hilton wrote in an order two weeks ago.

The "non-disclosure orders" Hilton referenced prevented Levison from naming Snowden as the target of the investigation that made him pull the plug on Lavabit, the email service he launched in 2004.

Nine years later, Levison abruptly shut down Lavabit without much explanation. "I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision. I cannot," Levison wrote in August 2013.

Since then, reports circulated that in July 2013 Snowden used a Lavabit email account to alert the media of an upcoming press conference. The government also inadvertently connected Snowden's name to the case.

Faced with $5,000 per day fines for contempt, Levison gave the government his SSL/TSL (Secure Socket Layer/Transport Layer Security) encryption key, which would let them eavesdrop on Snowden's account. Levison then shut down Lavabit.

"I did not devote 10 years of my life to building Lavabit, with its focus on privacy, only to become complicit in a plan which would have meant the wholesale violation of my customers' right to privacy," Levison wrote in 2014 in a long message on his website. "Thus with my options in court exhausted, the decision was easy. I had to shut down my service."

But until this month, he remained under the gag order and was not able to talk about specifics of the case.

In his statement last week, Levison also announced that he had formed a non-profit, LavaLegal, to raise money that would be spent helping other service providers fight attempts "aimed [at] circumventing digital privacy or impinging upon the right of those involved to speak of the experience."

Donations to LavaLegal can be made on As of Tuesday morning, three individuals had contributed a total of $175 to the fund.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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