Another case of our occasional feature, the Hero Award, given as the occasion arises to people who on a matter big or small just do the right thing.
This award concerns events that began last May and reached a sort of climax in August, but the information only came out with the unsealing of some court papers on October 3, so it's still current news.
Ladar Levison spent the last ten years building and running a business called Lavabit, an email service that employed a variety of means to secure the privacy of its customers, including following the government’s own secure coding guidelines and with systems engineered so as not to log user communications, so even if Levison received a subpoena for a user’s communications, he wouldn't be able to access them.
Over the years, he has received and cooperated with about two dozen government requests to assist federal agents in wiretapping specific email accounts. But the "request" that came from the FBI last May was different: The government not only wanted to tap a particular account, which Levison was willing to do, it wanted Lavabit's passwords, encryption keys, technically called SSL certificates, and computer code that would essentially allow the government unlimited, untrammeled, and warrantless access to all the messages of all his customers.
It was like, Levison said, asking Coca-Cola to release its secret formula and tapping an entire city to tap one phone.
That, he said, was too much. He resisted as best as he could.
He proposed a compromise. The FBI refused. He was summoned to testify to a grand jury in Virginia; he was forbidden to discuss his case or even say it was happening, a gag order he is still under even now; he was held in contempt of court and fined $10,000 for handing over his private encryption keys on paper and not in the digital form the feds wanted for their own convenience.
Finally, on August 8, he gave up. He turned over the encryption keys and then on the same day, he closed down his business. He announced in on his website, writing that
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.Privacy advocates said it was the first time they knew of that someone closed their business rather than comply with a court order they felt violated the constitution. They called it unprecedented. I call it the act of a hero.
Three quick footnotes: One, why did all this come down on Ladar Levison? Because, unfortunately for him, one of his customers, the one the FBI was interested in, was Edward Snowden.
Two, Levison had some words of wisdom for others:
This experience has taught me one very important lesson: without congressional action or a strong judicial precedent, I would strongly recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States.And three, after he closed his business, a federal prosecutor told his lawyer that was an act of defiance that fell just short of a crime. Right, "just short" of a crime. That means it was legal and the feds are just ticked off that they can't do anything to him because of it.