As I write this have finished reading a write up at The Guardian by Ladar Levison the founder of Lavabit, an email service that gained notoriety for its use by Edward Snowden in the wake of Snowden’s NSA leaks. Lavabit’s mission was simple. Provide a source for email that was secure and encrypted. That is to say, the email service’s main goal was to keep those emails private. In this write up (which I implore you to read) Ladar talks about some of the details of his legal case that eventually lead to the closing of his business/service. I just wanted to take a moment and cover some parts and share some thoughts. Also keep in mind that the details below are solely from the viewpoint of Ladar (but there’s really no reason to believe he is misrepresenting the facts.) Feel free to read the original write up HERE and skip my bullet pointed synopsis.
Time: Summer 2013
- 2 federal agents show up at Levison’s front door with court orders for installation of surveillance equipment.
- Law dictated that Levison comply with the court order, granting access to all email that passed through Lavabit’s servers.
- Federal agents said that the court order also required handing over of private encryption keys. Basically they wanted to be able to get to all of the stored encrypted emails in a format that they could actually read (encrypted means they were basically in code and not capable of being read without the decoder ring, the keys.)
- Upon Levison requesting legal advice he was hit with a deluge of requests from the FBI all while trying to find adequate legal help (this is more complicated than just going to any lawyer.) After one day of contact with a satisfactory attorney, Levison was ordered to appear in court… in 2 days… 1000 miles from home. The attorney was not able to attend due to the short notice.
- Levison was barred from telling people he needed an attorney or why. He could only speak to attorneys about the matter. He eventually appeared without counsel because he could not obtain representation in time and faced a bench warrent for not attending. Because the case affected his property and not himself, he did not have the right to counsel.
- The court eventually changed from a subpoena to a search warrant and rescheduled the court date. Levison obtained legal counsel and had a few days for preparation but they were not allowed to consult with legal or technological experts.
- A federal judge entered an order of contempt against Levison without a hearing. Because this was done without a hearing, Levison could not enter an objection. Because there was no objection the appeals court would not hear his case.
- Eventually Levison decided he had to close down Lavabit because its purpose was to provide secure and private email and he could no longer guarantee that.
Levison then goes on to make a few observations and share a little more.
The court gave law enforcement access to certain files but because the files were encrypted and they could not tell what belonged to whom, the officials decided they should get access to everything. The government also argued that the 4th Ammendment did not apply in this situation because they were using a machine for inspection.
The 4th amendment states:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Cue the screeching eagle and John Phillips Sousa songs. Let’s have a baseball/apple pie parade and celebrate our truth, justice, and American way. Why should we as Americans shy away from the gaze of foreigners? Obviously they can’t take our freedom! Sadly I am obviously speaking in jest.
Plain and simple, we’ve lost our way. I am equal parts enraged and apathetic. The United States was founded on certain principles and I feel pretty confident none of its founders would be proud of the events that transpired around Ladar Levison. He was forced into a position of making the moral choice of living up to his end of the bargain with his customers or becoming a stooge for the government like every other email service we all use. The government wanted access to his email without warrants and decisions were made by secret courts with threat of legal action if spoken about.
Levison was denied a fair trial. He was denied the ability to find legal counsel to begin with. Upon finally securing legal counsel, his attorneys were hamstrung by the government. His company was basically raped and murdered by the federal government because they could not get into private documents. Our government made the assertion that there was no expectation of privacy from consumers using AN ENCRYPTED EMAIL SERVICE. Please someone tell me what the point of an encrypted email service is if it is not privacy. Also, let’s not forget that regular USPS mail enjoys more legal protection from the government than your email does. The thing that is most laughable about this entire article is the fact that the government says they are not subject to the 4th Amendment because a machine would be doing the work. OKAY. THAT MAKES PERFECT SENSE. Excuse me while I drive down a crowded sidewalk. I’ll set the cruise control and take my hands off the steering wheel just to ensure that it is my car doing the work and not me (despite the fact that I told it what to do.) There is so much wrong with all of this that I am losing my ability to use proper sentences and paragraphs.
Please allow me to wrap this up by chiding all of you. This is a problem created by fear and apathy and I don’t know which is the worse of the 2. We gave up our liberty for safety after 9/11 or we didn’t care enough to realize what was happening. We don’t care enough now to mobilize and fight for change in meaningful numbers. If you aren’t willing to bring this up with people who may not be aware, you are part of the problem. If you are not willing to get passionate with those who disagree, you are part of the problem. If you don’t see anything wrong with all of this, you are part of the problem. In the words of a fictional character, “But again, truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror.”