Lavabit case documents unsealed, show government demanded encryption keys

Lavabit, the encrypted email provider of choice used by Edward Snowden, spontaneously closed its doors this past summer, doing so for vague reasons related to the government, though the service's owner was (and is) under gag order, keeping things quiet. Last month, a request to have some of the documents unsealed was submitted, which would allow amicus briefs to be filed. Such a request has been honored, revealing some information about what went down behind closed doors.

The government originally fought against the request, filing against the motion. That filing was ultimately denied, it would seem, with some case documents being unsealed today. In them, it is revealed the government sent Lavabit's owner, Levison, an order to provide metadata on a specific unnamed user who is widely believed to be Edward Snowden.

Levison did not comply with such demands, however, eventually prompting further action from the government, something that led to a search warrant demanding "all information" it needed to provide the FBI with access to the Lavabit account it was targeting, "including encryption keys and SSL keys." Of course, such would give it access to the provider's entire network, not just the individual Lavabit account.

Lavabit's founder went to court against the search warrant in early August, something that took place in secret with a senior U.S. District Court judge. Levison argued that such demands put all of its users' privacy at risk, a number that totaled over 400,000. The effort was futile, however, and the court rejected the company's argument. He did comply with the order, but didn't make it simple.

Levison provided the court with the SSL keys for his system, doing so in 4-point font on 11 printed pages. The court rejected the submission due to the difficulty in deciphering it, further ordering him to provide an electronic copy. Levison failed to do this, and was hit with a $5k daily fine for every day past August 5 that he failed to provide the information. On August 8, Levison closed the service down entirely.