Details on Lavabit Email Service's Sealed Appeal

By William Peacock, Esq. on September 12, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The case may be sealed, but that hasn't stopped curious members of the tech community from mining as much information about the Lavabit appeal as possible.

The ultra-secure email service shut its doors in August after it faced surveillance requests, the specifics of which were supposed to be kept quiet per a gag order. Instead of giving the NSA unfettered access to his users' data, the company's founder Ladar Levinson chose to turn off the servers, stating that he was "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."

Extent of the Requests

He didn't go quietly, however. Gag order or not, he is appealing the case to the Fourth Circuit and has made numerous other statements about the case, giving hints of what happened. He told NBC News that he had previously complied with a handful of data requests for specific users, but this was more general, and would require him to cooperate in broadly based surveillance, something he likened to installing a tap on his telephone.

The broad request came right around the time that Edward Snowden was revealed as a customer.

What were the specifics of those requests? We can't be sure, as the Fourth Circuit's seal seems less leaky than the NSA's staff, but security consultant Mark Burnett speculates that Levinson was asked to bypass his own security, perhaps by providing the NSA with his private SSL certificate (a full on wiretap), storing users' emails before the encryption process, or installing government spyware on their servers.

Details of the Appeal

Levinson's opening brief is due in the Fourth Circuit on October 3. According to Wired, he'll be challenging court orders approved by Judge Claude Hilton, a District Court Judge for the Eastern District of Virginia that served on the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court from 2000 to 2007, a time where the court approved the most widespread NSA surveillance programs, including the cell phone metadata collection.

The case numbers also reveal a minute bit of information. One of the case numbers contains "sw," which indicates that it deals with a search warrant, while another is listed as "Grand Jury Proceedings" and uses the same form as prior requests made during the Wikileaks grand jury in December 2010.

We'll keep an eye out for any information on the case that is made public, though we doubt we'll learn much until after the case has concluded, if then.

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