- The Washington Times - Friday, June 24, 2016

Three years after a government investigation forced the shuttering of Lavabit, a Texas-based email provider, its CEO revealed Friday that an account belonging to Edward Snowden spurred the probe that put his company out of business.

Ladar Levison shut down his encrypted webmail service in August 2013 amid an FBI investigation focused on one of his company’s nearly half-a-million customers. A gag-order that has just recently been vacated in federal has legally prevented him up until now from confirming the account in question was registered to none other than the NSA contractor attributed with one of the largest intelligence leaks in U.S. history.

U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton nullified the mandatory non-disclosure orders in a June 13 court filing that went unnoticed until Lavabit released a statement Friday.

“This is a small victory in a much larger battle — in a yet even larger war,” Mr. Levison told The Washington Times.

“One of the rights guaranteed to Americans, and a cornerstone for a functional democracy, is the freedom to speak the truth,” Mr. Levison said in a statement. “The First Amendment protects opinions, including those unfavorable to government, from injunctions against speech. The gag orders in this case were a violation of that inalienable right. No American should have to live for three years, gagged, with every word carefully weighed, when such opinions are concerned with such a public and controversial issue as state surveillance.”

Indeed, Mr. Levison’s reluctance to aid authorities interested in the lone “ed_snowden@lavabit.com” account came from concerns he had over how the rest of his 410,000 users would be impacted by the investigation. Although the FBI ordered Mr. Levison to let investigators monitor just a single email account, the underlying technology used to secure the entirety of Lavabit would have to be compromised for the surveillance to be successful.

Mr. Levison ultimately handed over the encryption keys used by Lavabit in August 2013. Earlier that day, however, he had abruptly and with little explanation closed down his homegrown company and instantly eliminated the government’s need to conduct to surveillance by suspending service for everyone.

“I have been 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,” Mr. Levison said in an ominous announcement at the time. “I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision. I cannot.”

Officially, the consent order approved by Judge Hilton in the Eastern District of Virginia earlier this month removes all gag-orders concerning Lavabit and Mr. Levison with regards to a grand jury investigation that led the FBI to Mr. Snowden’s email account.

“While I’m pleased that I can finally speak freely about the target of the investigation, I also know the fight to protect our collective freedom is far from over,” Mr. Levison said in a statement. He said he plans to discuss the case further during the DefCon security conference in Las Vegas this summer.

Although the FBI was never able to conduct surveillance on Mr. Snowden by compelling Lavabit for its encryption keys, he was later charged with espionage for leaking classified documents concerning the NSA’s operations. Mr. Snowden did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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