LADAR LEVINSON, the man who ran Lavabit, which was the secure email service of choice for NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, has discussed the circumstances of its shutdown.
Levinson has penned the story in an article at the Guardian, in which he said that the FBI came down hard on him and his company and that he was left with no option but to shut down Lavabit.
He said that the first time he was approached was with a knock on the door that introduced two federal agents and a court order that insisted that he install surveillance equipment on the Lavabit network. And that was just the start of it.
"I had no choice but to consent to the installation of their device, which would hand the US government access to all of the messages - to and from all of my customers - as they traveled between their email accounts other providers on the Internet," he said.
"But that wasn't enough. The federal agents then claimed that their court order required me to surrender my company's private encryption keys, and I balked. What they said they needed were customer passwords - which were sent securely - so that they could access the plain-text versions of messages from customers using my company's encrypted storage feature."
Levinson said that this was more than he could take, and told the agents that he would need more time to digest, and asked for a chance to read the papers at least.
This fell on deaf ears.
"The feds seemed surprised by my hesitation," he said. "What ensued was a flurry of legal proceedings that would last 38 days, ending not only my startup but also destroying, bit by bit, the very principle upon which I founded it - that we all have a right to personal privacy."
Levinson said that he was served legal papers seven times in a two week period and was in discussions with the FBI on a daily basis. During this time he was accused of not communicating.
The legal back and forth did not flow in Levinson's favour. He was required to attend court 1,000 miles away from home and was served with a subpoena for Lavabit encryption keys. The case was under seal and he struggled to gather together expert witnesses and legal support in the face of adversity.
For two months the process battered him, and then, he said, "A federal judge entered an order of contempt against me - without even so much as a hearing," and without any opportunity to object.
Levinson has described the case as Kafkaesque and the experience has taught him a lesson that he wants to share with the industry. That lesson is that the US government should not be allowed to carry on doing its surveillance work in the dark.
"If my experience serves any purpose, it is to illustrate what most already know: courts must not be allowed to consider matters of great importance under the shroud of secrecy, lest we find ourselves summarily deprived of meaningful due process," he warned.
"If we allow our government to continue operating in secret, it is only a matter of time before you or a loved one find yourself in a position like I did - standing in a secret courtroom, alone, and without any of the meaningful protections that were always supposed to be the people's defense against an abuse of the state's power." µ