In 2013 the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) demanded Ladar Levison hand over the TLS keys to his Lavabit service. He did comply, by providing the key printed out in small text, but also shutdown his service instead of letting the key be used to snoop on his customers. The FBI threw a hissy fit over this and even threatened to kidnap Levison for shutting down his business. But one question that always remained was who the FBI was after. Everybody knew it was Edward Snowden but there was no hard evidence… until now.
Court documents related to the Lavabit case have been released. The documents are naturally heavily redacted but the censors missed a page:
In court papers related to the Lavabit controversy, the target of the investigation was redacted, but it was widely assumed to be Edward Snowden. He was known to have used the service, and the charges against the target were espionage and theft of government property, the same charges Snowden faced.
Now, what was widely assumed has been confirmed. In documents posted to the federal PACER database this month, the government accidentally left his e-mail, “Ed_snowden@lavabit.com,” unredacted for all to see. The error was noted by the website Cryptome earlier this week, and Wired covered it yesterday.
This revelation didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know before but it’s nice to have hard evidence in hand. Now we know with certainty that the FBI completely destroyed a business as retaliation for having Snowden as a customer. I say this was retaliatory because the court documents [PDF] clearly show that Levison was willing to cooperate with the FBI by surveilling the single target of the order. However, the FBI decided it would accept nothing less than the surrender of Lavabit’s TLS key.
Had the FBI been reasonable it would have had its tap. Instead its agents decided to be unreasonable fuckheads, which forced Levison to shutdown his business entirely instead of putting thousands of innocent users at risk. This case is also a lesson in never cooperating with terrorists. Levison offered to cooperate and still had his business destroyed. When the FBI comes to your door you should refuse to cooperate in any way. Cooperating will not save you. The only difference between cooperating and refusing to cooperate is that in the case of the latter your business will be shutdown before innocent users are put at risk.