Thursday, October 31, 2013, by Matthew Henry
Following the national security revelation made by Edward Snowden last summer, attention quickly turned to the means in which he transmitted the information. Snowden had used an email service known as Lavabit. Ledar Levinson founded Lavabit in 2004. Whereas similar services utilized advertisements, Lavabit charged a modest yearly fee to its users. The email service offered users an encrypted and protected communication platform. This encryption was known as “asymmetric encryption” that uses several different levels of password protection. Users of Lavabit could then activate encryption on their account preventing anyone, including Lavabit itself, other than the user from accessing the contents of the email.
Once it was discovered that Snowden was utilizing the Lavabit email service in order to communicate with his contacts around the world, the FBI wanted access to those emails. However, under the encryption system employed by Lavabit it was unable to comply once the user turned on the encryption option. Eventually, the FBI went so far as to demand that Ledar Levinson turn over Lavabit’s SSL keys. This would have allowed the FBI not only to decrypt Edward Snowden’s incoming and outgoing communications with the email provider, but also every other user’s data as well. It would have fundamentally broken the Lavabit encrypted email service. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jane Lynch, “obtaining a warrant for a service’s private key is no different than obtaining a warrant to search all the houses in a city to find the papers of one suspect.”
And so Levinson decided to shut down Lavabit as opposed to seeing the entire service’s privacy protections being rendered inoperable. He was eventually held in contempt of court for not fully complying with law enforcement authorities, even though he “offered the FBI access to the account that is believed to have been used by Snowden.” Levinson continues to be engaged in litigations surrounding his actions.
By demanding complete access to sites that would allow for widespread fishing expeditions, it undermines privacy protections and faith in the US marketplace.
Recently, Levinson discussed the issues surrounding the shutdown of Lavabit. He noted that “[the FBI] didn’t fully comprehend the implications of what they were demanding.” Technology is evolving more rapidly than our legal privacy framework can handle. Whereas it is often simple to request and track down a single physical file, often times it is far more difficult and complex when dealing with digital ones – especially when user implemented encryption is involved.
This sets the stage for how the Fourth Amendment will be interpreted in a digital world. Also, the government’s action in this case will have far reaching economic implications as more and more services move to the cloud. Companies will be wary of establishing services within the United States if there is a threat that those services could be undermined. By demanding complete access to sites that would allow for widespread fishing expeditions, it undermines privacy protections and faith in the US marketplace. At the same time, people will continue to innovate new and more private products to ensure safe and protected communications.