Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Risk

Lavabit Owner Fined For Resisting FBI Demands

Unsealed court documents reveal new details in encrypted email service provider's role in protecting identity of whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The owner of shuttered encrypted email service provider Lavabit was being fined $5,000 per day after he refused to give the FBI unfettered access to the systems being used to handle every Lavabit user's communications.

That fact was revealed this week after a federal judge unsealed more than 160 pages of partially redacted documents relating to a June 28 authorization of a pen registration trap on the email account of a Lavabit account holder and to subsequent legal wrangling between Lavabit founder Ladar Levison and federal prosecutors.

While the account holder's name was redacted throughout the court documents, all evidence points to it being NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. In fact, his name was mentioned extant in one document -- filed by Levison's attorney -- but only in relationship to recent concerns by the public over U.S. government spying.

[ 13 men have been charged with attacking sites of RIAA and other organizations thought to be hostile to piracy sites and WikiLeaks. Read more at Operation Payback: Feds Charge 13 On Anonymous Attacks. ]

Levison's service was built to provide anonymity -- not just for the content of their messages, but also the date and time they were sent, the IP addresses for which they were intended, and other metadata. Ultimately, rather than comply with a court order requiring him to disclose all encryption keys and SSL keys pertaining to Snowden's account, as well as all information necessary to decrypt data stored in or otherwise associated with that account, Levison pulled the plug on Lavabit.

His move drew plaudits from many privacy advocates.

But the full story is a little more complicated, as the unsealed court documents now reveal. For starters, Levison -- who was previously subject to a gag order -- was in a bind. "I have always agreed to the installation of the pen register device," he said in a related court hearing on July 16, according to the unsealed documents. "I have only ever objected to turning over the SSL keys because that would compromise all of the secure communications in and out of my network, including my own administrative traffic."

But under U.S. law, with a court order, the FBI has a legal right to install a pen trap device and retrieve email metadata during a criminal investigation. Levison, however, had built a system where the keys encrypting the content of emails were the same keys used to encrypt metadata, and he couldn't easily separate one from the other without extensive coding changes to Lavabit's infrastructure. While he offered to undertake such changes -- in return for "reasonable expenses" of at least $2,000 to cover 60 days' worth of development work -- the FBI argued, and a judge agreed, that given the ongoing criminal investigation, it had a right to the information in a much more timely manner.

So Levison offered to retrieve required messages on a daily basis and upload them to an FBI server. Again, however, the bureau said that wouldn’t meet its requirements; it apparently wanted to follow Snowden's email-related metadata in real time. Levison, meanwhile, argued that the FBI's request for real-time pen trap information didn't appear to be required in the wording of the subpoena he'd received.

On August 2, facing the prospect of a $1,000 daily fine for noncompliance, Levison did furnish the FBI with a printout of the information that would be required to operate the pen register. But according to a court document filed by U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBridge, which read, "this printout, in what appears to be 4-point type, consists of 11 pages of largely illegible characters," it would prove worthless to the bureau if, after the information had been entered manually, any single character was typed incorrectly. Levison subsequently failed to provide the requested information electronically in an industry standard format, despite repeated requests from the Department of Justice.

As a result, a federal judge slapped Levison with a $5,000 daily fine on August 5. Three days later Levison pulled the plug on Lavabit, which he said had more than 400,000 subscribers and generated annual income of between $50,000 and $100,000. Because he was subject to a gag order, Levison released a statement at that time saying only, "I've shut down Lavabit because I refuse to be complicit in the crimes against the American people and the U.S. Constitution. I wish I could say more about our situation."

He also launched an appeal for funds to help pay for related legal costs. The fundraising campaign, which lists a goal of $96,000, by Friday morning had raised more than $70,000, courtesy of more than 1,800 donors.

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Mathew
50%
50%
Mathew,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/8/2013 | 4:06:07 PM
re: Lavabit Owner Fined For Resisting FBI Demands
If you trust the government of Venezuela or Iceland to not issue a secret court order giving them direct, surreptitious access to local versions of Lavabit, or the NSA then hacking into their access mechanism.
moarsauce123
50%
50%
moarsauce123,
User Rank: Ninja
10/7/2013 | 10:05:38 PM
re: Lavabit Owner Fined For Resisting FBI Demands
So clearly this just means we're setting up a server in Venezuela now or Iceland and firing Lavabit back online? Subpoena's will then be useless.
Commentary
Ransomware Is Not the Problem
Adam Shostack, Consultant, Entrepreneur, Technologist, Game Designer,  6/9/2021
Edge-DRsplash-11-edge-ask-the-experts
How Can I Test the Security of My Home-Office Employees' Routers?
John Bock, Senior Research Scientist,  6/7/2021
News
New Ransomware Group Claiming Connection to REvil Gang Surfaces
Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer,  6/10/2021
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon Contest
Write a Caption, Win an Amazon Gift Card! Click Here
Latest Comment: Google's new See No Evil policy......
Current Issue
The State of Cybersecurity Incident Response
In this report learn how enterprises are building their incident response teams and processes, how they research potential compromises, how they respond to new breaches, and what tools and processes they use to remediate problems and improve their cyber defenses for the future.
Flash Poll
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
Recent breaches of third-party apps are driving many organizations to think harder about the security of their off-the-shelf software as they continue to move left in secure software development practices.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2021-31664
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-18
RIOT-OS 2021.01 before commit 44741ff99f7a71df45420635b238b9c22093647a contains a buffer overflow which could allow attackers to obtain sensitive information.
CVE-2021-33185
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-18
SerenityOS contains a buffer overflow in the set_range test in TestBitmap which could allow attackers to obtain sensitive information.
CVE-2021-33186
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-18
SerenityOS in test-crypto.cpp contains a stack buffer overflow which could allow attackers to obtain sensitive information.
CVE-2021-31272
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-18
SerenityOS before commit 3844e8569689dd476064a0759d704bc64fb3ca2c contains a directory traversal vulnerability in tar/unzip that may lead to command execution or privilege escalation.
CVE-2021-31660
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-18
RIOT-OS 2021.01 before commit 85da504d2dc30188b89f44c3276fc5a25b31251f contains a buffer overflow which could allow attackers to obtain sensitive information.