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Lavabit founder says he fought feds to protect the Constitution

In 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.

Lavabit founder Ladar Levison in a public sit-down with reporter Declan McCullagh at CNET headquarters here in San Francisco, Calif. on Monday, Oct. 28.
James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Like a story straight out of the universe of Franz Kafka, Lavabit founder Ladar Levison found himself before a judge in Washington, representing himself against an entire team of representatives for the US government.

The founder of the secure e-mail service couldn't find an affordable lawyer in the only one week's time he was given to travel from Texas to DC. Still, he found it imperative to argue his case for why federal agents were not authorized to gather Lavabit's SSL keys for its mounting case against National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.

In a talk here at CNET headquarters with chief political correspondent Declan McCullagh and the Electronic Frontier Foundation senior staff attorney Kurt Opsahl, Levison laid out the timeline of this summer's events leading up to his decision to shutdown Lavabit in August to prevent himself from becoming "complicit in crimes against the American people."

Levison's struggle, resembling in parts a spy movie on par with Snowden's flight from the US, involved a series of attempts wrapped in mind-boggling legal intricacies imposed by the US government to prevent authorities from collecting his user's data. To comply with the request would have been antithetical to Levison's mission in providing a secure e-mail service with Lavabit. But Levison also saw the efforts of the government as profoundly dangerous in its potential to set a legal precedent.

"It was about more than keeping me out of jail," Levison said. "It was about protecting the Constitution."

Now Levison is in a drawn out legal battle over his decision to shutter the e-mail service. That move sidestepped a FBI search warrant that finally, after months of ambiguous wrangling and attempts to coerce him into handing them over voluntarily, spelled out the government's explicit request for the SSL keys. In another now-infamous anecdote, Levison printed out Lavabit's SSL keys in a hard-to-copy font -- "Everyone says it was four-point font, but I think it was more like eight" -- so that he had enough time to fly back to Texas and shutdown his company.

Levison recounted how he endured multiple visits from federal agents and the tailing of his vehicle outside his Texas home. The most telling aspect of the tale is the measures taken by authorities to bend the language of its motions to further empower the US government. In other words, the authorities at the behest of the NSA were interested in turning Levison and Lavabit into an example for using broad language to justify limitless collection of personal data from businesses, and then legally barring them from telling anyone about it.

"They didn't fully comprehend the implications of what they were demanding. I do know they have done it before, if that helps," Levison admitted, adding that he thinks the NSA more or less told the non-technical members of the Department of Justice to collect the information, which it followed through with without any regard for what that meant for security and privacy on the Web in an age of increasing government surveillance.

"They didn't understand the industry implications," he added. Only after Levison fought aggressively, and openly said he would comply with every other demand of the court orders, did the government equip itself with a search warrant.

"One of the things I found most disturbing about some of these leaks this summer was that even our own members of Congress didn't understand the extent of this surveillance," Levison said of the importance of challenging the NSA. "Tomorrow the technology will change and the issue will come back up again if we don't address the issue legislatively."

As for what he's working on next, Levison dropped a hint. "I'll just call it a potential technical solution to the problem that I'm calling dark mail," he said. He plans on releasing more information about the initiative on Wednesday.