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Lavabit founder says he fought feds to protect the ConstitutionIn a sit-down at CNET headquarters, Lavabit CEO Ladar Levison discusses the legal bureaucracy the US government employed to try to force him to become complicit with NSA surveillance.
-Thank you for coming to CNET this evening. You shutdown, Lavabit, you pulled the plug on the service in early August. Could you briefly say why you did that? What was the last draw? -When I finally lost my fight in court and I had to turn over the keys, I decided long before that if that ever happened and I wasn't able to tell people that it was happening. And as a result, build the public support I needed to change the law, then the only ethical choice was to shut down. So, the decision had already been made and it was just simply the act of turning over the keys that prompted me to take those steps and finally shutdown the service. -When you say keys, do you mean the master encryption keys, the SSL keys for web traffic? -I mean the private keys that were used for SSL. Because when I turned those over, I was effectively turning over control of my network to the federal government. They could see everything coming in and out of my network and they could read the plain text. They could see passwords. They could see email content. They could intercept credit card transactions. Everything that was at all sensitive and I had effectively lost the ability to control my own network. And as a network administrator that just was a completely untenable position. -You said you had made this decision in advance. They'll track down the service if this line were crossed. Did you tell the federal government that the agents when you're talking with them? Did you say if you push me this far I'll pull the plug? -The exact opposite. The only person that I told that I had made that decision was my lawyer and I had to tell to him in person. Because my fear was that if the government found out that I was planning to shut down my service, they would have ordered me to keep it running. And if after that I did, in fact, shutdown the service, it would have been an opening shot obstruction of justice case. -You're up against the U.S. Government in this ongoing law suit. It's now with Foreign Appeals Court. You're up against the Department of Justice, which has been called the world's largest law firm and you're funding this on your own to a large extent. It's not like you're Microsoft or Google or Apple with billions of dollars in the bank. How are you holding up and how are you affording this? -Well, when I first made the decision to fight, I knew I didn't have the resources to win, but I felt that the battle was too important to give up on. It's only with the support of the public, the donations that they made for Lavabit Legal Defense Fund, that my team actually now has the resources they need to possibly win this fight. So, it's the people who used my service and saw my story contributed. They're the ones who were providing the resources we need to fight our own government, which is a little bit of irony because they're also the ones that provided the resources of the government that they're using to fight against me. You have to remember that everything our government does is funded by money that we give them. So that means that the surveillance that they're conducting on the American people is funded by the American people's tax dollars. -Under what circumstances would you reopen Lavabit and launch the service again? Would it be if you win the lawsuit or if the feds withdraw their demands? What would it take? -Effectively at this point, the feds have withdrawn in the sense that I'm now able to issue new SSL keys and resurrect services, which how I was able to put up the download site. The problem is if I were to resurrect the service itself, there's nothing preventing them from coming along in demanding the SSL keys a second time and putting me in the position of shutting down a second time. So, that's why I resolved to keep the service shutdown until the appeal concludes. And if we conclude victoriously, I will reopen service. Because that means there will be a president set that says they're not allowed to come along and demand these SSL keys again. If I lose, what I will probably do is turn the service over to somebody who lives abroad in a country with stricter, more protective data privacy laws and let them run, because what I've realized since shutting down is that if I were to move the service abroad we'll continue to run it as an American living in America. I could still be forced to break open the system so that the government could conduct surveillance. I could effectively be put in the position where I would have to choose between breaking U.S. laws or the laws of the country where the service was hosted. -Have you thought of any other countries with any-- on a shortlist where you could, in theory, move this or have a partner move this? -My team looked in to Iceland, Switzerland and we also looked into the Bahamas. But like I said, it ultimately came down to not a question or what the laws were like in that country, but what the laws were like in this country, and I just wasn't comfortable turning over the service to somebody else as long as I-- continued to tie my name to it. So if I end up losing my case, what I'll end up doing is turning the service over lock, stock, and barrel and washing my hands of it. If I win my case, I'll resurrect the service here in the U.S. And what sad is that we build ourselves as the country of freedom. If there's any place in the world where people should be able to communicate freely and in private, it should be the United States. So as an American, I find it somewhat disconcerting that I even have to consider moving a service like this abroad. -With the disclosures that started with Edward Snowden over the last four months, do you think that your fight, your legal fight is going to be a part of a turning point in the way Americans use surveillance and will actually lead to reforms and changes in the way intelligence agencies operate or do you see this has a blip and then it's in the-- as usual afterward? What do you see happenings a year from now? -I certainly hope that there's a change. I believe earlier in the summer the political machine was much more motivate to make the necessary changes, but as it turns out they were on break and as we all know when they came back in the session, they were preoccupied with the debt crisis. And at least as of late, I haven't heard too many of them bring back up the issue of mass surveillance. But like I've said in the letter that I posted on my website when I shut down, I think we need not only a judicial president, but a change by the-- of the laws themselves, that make it very clear exactly what information our government is allowed to collect and on whom and what standards need to be met. It's somewhat disconcerting that just by associating with somebody, you can be put under the microscope. It's even more disconcerting that that microscope can pare back through years of your own history and to have people not even know that this is going on is even more disturbing. How can I defend myself against allegations steaming from something I said five years ago? I won't even remember what I said and who I said it to. And yet, all this information is being stockpiled, archived, indexed, and searched. -What is the website for your legal defense fund? -We haven't setup a website specifically for the non-profit yet, but there's a donation link to it on lavabit.com and we've also set up a campaign on rally.org so that we can continue raising funds. Right now, we're waiting for the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to hear our case and make a decision and I think we're good until then. And depending on what happens at that stage, we'll find out if this case ends up going to the Supreme Court. And if it does, we'll have to continue the drive to raise funds because like you said we're up against an enemy with unlimited resources and the full intent to use all of them at their disposal to continue conducting the surveillance and justify it to the courts.