Meet Ladar Levison, the SMU Grad Whose Snowden-Approved Email Service Made Him a Libertarian Hero

Four months ago, Ladar Levison was just another dude running a small business and really enjoying beach volleyball. Then, in May, the FBI left a business card on his doorstep. He, and eventually the rest of the world, would soon find out why.

Levison, an SMU grad, runs Lavabit LLC, a small email services provider based in Dallas whose vigilant protection of user privacy makes it the platform of choice for NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

This revelation, coming after it was noticed that Snowden used a lavabit.com email address to invite lawyers and activists to a press conference during his captivity in the Moscow airport, attracted a good deal of attention from tech press and sent new customers flocking to the service by the thousands.

See also: Ross Ulbricht, the Founder of the Silk Road Online Drug Bazaar, is a Proud UT-Dallas Grad

But it was Levison's decision a month later, to shutter Lavabit to avoid becoming "complicit in crimes against the American people," that turned him into something of a libertarian hero.

He gave a few interviews at the time but was limited in what he could say because of a gag order. That order was lifted yesterday, as was the seal on dozens of pages of court documents detailing exactly what the government wanted from Lavabit, which is described by The New York Times:

[A] month before the [Moscow] news conference, court documents show, Mr. Levison had already received a subpoena for Mr. Snowden's encrypted email account. The government was particularly interested in his email metadata -- with whom Mr. Snowden was communicating, when and from where. The order, from the Federal District Court in Alexandria, Va., required Mr. Levison to log Mr. Snowden's account information and provide the F.B.I. with "technical assistance," which agents told him meant handing over the private encryption keys, technically called SSL certificates, that unlock communications for all users, he said.

"It was the equivalent of asking Coca-Cola to hand over its secret formula," Mr. Levison said.

Levison initially balked at the request for the encryption codes, prompting the FBI to go to a federal judge, who signed an order mandating their release. Still Levison dragged his feet. He suggested a compromise, offering to hand over Snowden's decrypted emails once per day, but was refused.

So Levison handed over the encryption keys, albeit not in a form the government wanted. They were printed on 100 pages of paper in 4-point type, which the court deemed "largely illegible," according to ZDNet.

With that, the court told Levison to hand over the encryption codes on a CD or face a fine of $5,000 per day. Instead, he shut down.

That's not to say that Levison's fight is over. He is appealing the judge's rulings, a battle for which supporters have established a legal defense fund. He eventually hopes to reopen Lavabit.

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