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May 21, 2014

Lavabit founder criticises US court for destroying right to privacy

Email used by Edward Snowden was shut down after the government demanded SSL encryption keys.

By Jimmy Nicholls

The founder of Lavabit has accused the US legal system of destroying the right to privacy, in an open letter posted on the firm’s website.

Ladar Levison, an entrepreneur whose encrypted mail service gained notoriety after it was revealed to have been used by Edward Snowden, detailed his difficulty obtaining legal counsel as prosecution rushed the case through the court.

He said: "The government lawyers tried to overwhelm me. In the first two weeks, I was served court orders a total of seven times – leading to contact with the FBI every other day."

The criticism follows a federal appeals court upholding a $10,000 contempt of court ruling issued against Levison for refusing to provide the government with SSL encryption keys for his service, a decision made due to the tech entrepreneur’s failure to lodge an objection on the record.

Just over a week after his first brush with the FBI Levison was summoned to a courtroom in Virginia, forcing him to hastily hire a local law firm after he discovered he had no right to legal counsel due to the nature of the accusations.

"The court barred them from consulting outside experts, making it difficult to understand the complex legal and technological issues involved," he said.

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"To make matters worse, the court wouldn’t deliver transcripts for my first appearance for another two months. My legal team was forced to proceed without access to information they needed."

Levison maintains that he was not given the opportunity to object to the contempt charges issued shortly afterwards by a federal judge, following a decision in August of last year to shut down the email service.

"I had not devoted 10 years of my life to building Lavabit, only to become complicit in a plan which I felt would have involved the wholesale violation of my customers’ right to privacy," he said.

"Given the Supreme Court’s tradition of declining to review cases decided on procedural grounds, I will likely be denied justice, forever."

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