Ladar Levison’s three-year fight for freedom to speak about the government order that shuttered Lavabit, his secure email service, is finally over. Levison was finally able to confirm today that Lavabit was targeted by the government during its investigation into the Edward Snowden leaks.
Although Apple’s legal battle to keep its users’ data encrypted is more widely known, Levison engaged in a similar fight in June 2013, when government agents showed up at his doorstep in Dallas. The government demanded that Levison turn over data about a particular user, and served him with a non-disclosure order that prevented him from speaking about that user — until now.
“It still feels a little bit weird saying Edward Snowden’s name in connection with my case. I always had to be so careful,” Levison told TechCrunch.
Although the government accidentally revealed that Snowden was the target of its investigation when it left his email address unredacted in a March court filing, Levison has remained unable to speak about it. “Legally speaking, I was still barred from discussing it,” he said. Earlier this month, the government finally allowed the gag order to be lifted.
“It’s a small victory in a much larger fight in an even bigger war,” Levison explained. He’s planning to celebrate his new freedom by presenting a talk at DEF CON 24 about compelled decryption, in which he will discuss his case in detail for the first time. Now that his case has ended, Levison is considering reviving Lavabit, perhaps as a Dark Mail service.
He’s also launching LavaLegal, a legal defense fund that he hopes will serve other small businesses as they fight for encryption. He explained that his own experience taught him the struggle small service providers go through when they are forced to defend themselves in court.
Levison founded Lavabit in 2003, and had a steady 10 years of operation before shutting down in August 2013. At the time, he announced his decision with a cryptic note to users. “I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit. After significant soul searching, I have decided to suspend operations,” he wrote. “I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision. I cannot.”
Even after years of court battles, Levison is still glad Snowden chose to use Lavabit. “I think if anything, I’m glad it was him and not a degenerate or a scoundrel that I was left defending,” he said. “My fear was that I would be forced to defend a terrorist or a child pornography ring or organized crime or something of that nature. Instead, the person they went after that led to the eventual shutdown was a whistleblower exposing government abuse. That’s at the very heart of why I think privacy is so important.”