Search Mailing List Archives

Limit search to: Subject & Body Subject Author
Sort by: Reverse Sort
Limit to: All This Week Last Week This Month Last Month
Select Date Range     through    

[liberationtech] How Lavabit Melted Down

Tom O winterfilth at
Wed Oct 9 13:52:53 PDT 2013

He seemed pretty ok with handing over user metadata for a rather small
amount of cash though.

On Thursday, October 10, 2013, Eugen Leitl wrote:

> On August 8th, Lavabit, newly famous for being the secure e-mail service
> used
> by the National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, went dark.
> Its
> owner and operator, Ladar Levison, replaced its home page with a message:
> “I
> cannot share my experiences over the last six weeks, even though I have
> twice
> made the appropriate requests.” Levison could write only that he chose to
> shut down the company rather than “become complicit in crimes against the
> American people,” and he promised to “fight for the Constitution in the
> Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.”
> Court-watchers repeatedly checked the Fourth Circuit docket to see whether
> Levison would follow through. While the Fourth Circuit kept the appeals
> secret and placed them under seal, observers deduced that Levison’s appeals
> were the ones numbered 13-4625 and 13-4626. Last week, U.S. District Judge
> Claude M. Hilton unsealed a hundred and sixty-two pages of previously
> secret
> documents related to two District Court orders issued against Lavabit, so
> that Levison could have a public record of his appeals. These disclosures
> fall short of the ideal of open justice, but they do give Levison’s ordeal
> a
> public shape.
> They also allow Levison to speak more openly now. This past weekend, in
> Manhattan’s Bryant Park, his demeanor was steady, if clearly burdened; he
> is,
> after all, a man who was forced to destroy the business he had spent most
> of
> the past decade building, and who is locked in a legal and philosophical
> battle against the United States government.
> Levison wore a white, starched collared shirt with thin gold cufflinks; the
> afternoon was warm, and sweat, mixed with the gel that fixed his hair in a
> slightly spiked coiffure, dotted his forehead. He spoke sternly but
> calmly—his tenor lacked the quiet frenzy of, say, Thomas Drake, the N.S.A.
> whistleblower, even though most of what he had to say was bad news, if you
> value electronic privacy or security. He doesn’t use e-mail on his Android
> smartphone, for instance, because neither the software nor the hardware of
> any commercial phone can be trusted; carriers and phone makers can push
> malware onto the device, he said. Yet his views are far from radical. While
> he opposes the bulk collection of domestic communications, he has no such
> strong feelings about the N.S.A.’s foreign-surveillance efforts. He is, if
> anything, disappointed that the U.S. government would spy on its own
> citizens
> on such a grand scale, and with such impunity, even though Levison’s
> decision
> to build a privacy-oriented e-mail service in the first place, in 2004, was
> partly in response to the Patriot Act. Part of Lavabit’s mission, before it
> shut down, was that it would “never sacrifice privacy for profits.” One of
> its most notable features was that, for paying users, it encrypted e-mail
> messages and other files stored on its server so that they could not be
> read
> by third parties without a user’s password.
> As the Times reported last week, the unsealed documents reveal that the
> first
> chapter of Levison’s “tangle with law enforcement” began in May—well before
> the first Snowden leak of the N.S.A.’s massive database of call logs broke
> in
> June—when an F.B.I. agent left his business card on Levison’s doorstep. On
> June 10th, the government secured an order from the Eastern District of
> Virginia. The order, issued under the Stored Communications Act, required
> Lavabit to turn over to the F.B.I. retrospective information about one
> account, widely presumed to be that of Snowden. (The name of the target
> remains redacted, and Levison could not divulge it.) The order directed
> Lavabit to surrender names and addresses, Internet Protocol and Media
> Access
> Control addresses, the volume of each and every data transfer, the duration
> of every “session,” and the “source and destination” of all communications
> associated with the account. It also forbade Levison and Lavabit from
> discussing the matter with anyone.
> Levison now says that while that particular investigation “escalated,” it
> was
> not the only one to land at his doorstep in recent years. He believes that
> even if he hadn’t hosted the e-mail account of the target, Lavabit would
> eventually have found itself in the position that it’s in now because it
> “constitutes a gap” in the government’s intelligence. The broader
> implication—as shown by the N.S.A.’s efforts to attack the anonymous Tor
> network—is that intelligence agencies will try to crack any service
> designed
> for privacy and used at scale.
> On June 28th, the Eastern District Court of Virginia issued another order,
> “authorizing the installation and use of a pen register and the use of a
> trap
> and trace device” on all electronic communications being sent from or to
> the
> account. The term “pen register” is a relic of Morse’s telegraph; it refers
> to the mechanical pen that recorded the electrical pulses that routed a
> telegraph. Today, the term is used to refer to any device or process that
> records outgoing routing information, such as phone numbers dialed or
> e-mail
> addresses typed. A “trap and trace device” does the inverse, and records
> incoming phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and other connections. A court
> may
> issue this kind of order if the information likely to be captured is
> “relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation.” This order also forbade
> Lavabit from discussing the matter.
> The unsealed documents describe a meeting on June 28th between the F.B.I.
> and
> Levison at Levison’s home in Dallas. There, according to the documents,
> Levison told the F.B.I. that he would not comply with the pen-register
> order
> and wanted to speak to an attorney. As the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern
> District of Virginia, Neil MacBride, described it, “It was unclear whether
> Mr. Levison would not comply with the order because it was technically not
> feasible or difficult, or because it was not consistent with his business
> practice in providing secure, encrypted e-mail service for his customers.”
> The meeting must have gone poorly for the F.B.I. because McBride filed a
> motion to compel Lavabit to comply with the pen-register and trap-and-trace
> order that very same day.
> Magistrate Judge Theresa Carroll Buchanan granted the motion, inserting in
> her own handwriting that Lavabit was subject to “the possibility of
> criminal
> contempt of Court” if it failed to comply. When Levison didn’t comply, the
> government issued a summons, “United States of America v. Ladar Levison,”
> ordering him to explain himself on July 16th. The newly unsealed documents
> reveal tense talks between Levison and the F.B.I. in July. Levison wanted
> additional assurances that any device installed in the Lavabit system would
> capture only narrowly targeted data, and no more. He refused to provide
> real-time access to Lavabit data; he refused to go to court unless the
> government paid for his travel; and he refused to work with the F.B.I.’s
> technology unless the government paid him for “developmental time and
> equipment.” He instead offered to write an intercept code for the account’s
> metadata—for thirty-five hundred dollars. He asked Judge Hilton whether
> there
> could be “some sort of external audit” to make sure that the government did
> not take additional data. (The government plan did not include any
> oversight
> to which Levison would have access, he said.)
> Most important, he refused to turn over the S.S.L. encryption keys that
> scrambled the messages of Lavabit’s customers, and which prevent third
> parties from reading them even if they obtain the messages. The
> pen-register
> order required Levison to permit the F.B.I. to install the pen register and
> provide “technical assistance necessary to accomplish the installation.”
> Levison argued that the “technical assistance” provision did not require
> that
> he surrender the S.S.L. keys, especially because he was willing to write
> intercept code for the information the government desired. Giving up the
> keys
> “would compromise all of the secure communications in and out my network,
> including my own administrative traffic,” he told Judge Hilton. The U.S.
> Attorney’s Office, for its part, insisted that without the S.S.L. keys,
> “the
> data from the pen register will be meaningless,” an analysis shared by
> others. But the pen-register data may not have been “meaningless” if the
> government took up Levison’s offer to write his own intercept code.
> Prior to the hearing on July 16th, the U.S. Attorney filed a motion for
> civil
> contempt, requesting that Levison be fined a thousand dollars for every day
> that he refused to comply with the pen-register order. Earlier in the day,
> Hilton issued a search-and-seizure warrant, authorizing law enforcement to
> seize from Lavabit “all information necessary to decrypt communications
> sent
> to or from [the account], including encryption keys and SSL keys,” and “all
> information necessary to decrypt data stored in or otherwise associated
> with
> [the account].” On July 25th, Lavabit petitioned to cancel the subpoena and
> warrant, arguing that if the “government gains access to Lavabit’s Master
> Key, it will have unlimited access to not only [the account], but all of
> the
> communications and data stored in each of Lavabit’s 400,000 e-mail
> accounts.”
> Lavabit also asked the court to unseal its records and permit Levison to
> speak.
> It was the government’s insistence on collecting the S.S.L. keys that most
> deeply disturbed Levison, and led to the shutdown of Lavabit. He believes
> that not only would the F.B.I. have had unfettered, secret access to the
> communications of his four hundred thousand customers—without being
> required
> to give Levison a log of what it accessed—but putting his encryption keys
> in
> the hands of the government would have opened Lavabit to a more profound
> exploitation of his service’s communications. Levison worried that if he
> turned the keys over to the F.B.I., the N.S.A. would have been able to
> obtain
> them without his knowledge through a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act
> court order. We know now that the N.S.A. has been systematically cracking
> encryption across the Web, and it has built a database of encryption keys
> that automatically decode messages; this is dangerous, Levison says,
> because
> it allows the N.S.A. to read encrypted communications as they flow past the
> agency’s taps of the broader Internet infrastructure by simply observing
> them, leaving no trace of the surveillance, unlike a traditional
> “man-in-the-middle” attack. This vulnerability, he insists, is not
> sufficiently understood. And, while the Times’s initial reporting indicates
> that the N.S.A.’s method of obtaining the keys for its database is
> “shrouded
> in secrecy,” Levison suggests that his case also illustrates one of the
> ways
> in which it collects them: by secretly compelling companies to turn them
> over.
> The F.B.I., Levison says, “sold its soul” to the N.S.A. to acquire its
> technologies and become a “counter-intelligence agency” rather than a
> domestic police force. The result is an agency with somewhat stunning
> technical capabilities—it was the F.B.I. that used malware to identify
> users
> of the Tor network in the course of its investigation of Freedom Hosting,
> the
> anonymous service provider, an incident that disturbed Levison because it
> put
> legitimate users at risk, even if he doesn’t agree with the illegal content
> that Freedom Hosting was allegedly housing. Before the Bureau demanded
> Lavabit’s S.S.L. keys, in fact, he was asked “half a dozen times” about any
> point in the system where information flowed through unencrypted so that
> the
> F.B.I. could tap it. One result of this newfound expertise, however, is
> that
> Levison believes there is a knowledge gap between the Department of Justice
> and law-enforcement agencies; the former did not grasp the implications of
> what the F.B.I. was asking for when it demanded his S.S.L. keys. (According
> to Levison, the F.B.I. agents who came to his house were surprised that he
> hadn’t seen one of the sets of documents that had been e-mailed to him
> demanding Lavabit’s information; they pointed to his phone and said he
> could
> look up the information right there. He responded, “You know better than I
> do
> why I don’t have e-mail on my phone.”)
> On August 1st, Lavabit’s counsel, Jesse Binnall, reiterated Levison’s
> proposal that the government engage Levison to extract the information from
> the account himself rather than force him to turn over the S.S.L. keys.
> THE COURT: You want to do it in a way that the government has to trust you—
> BINNALL: Yes, Your Honor.
> THE COURT: —to come up with the right data.
> BINNALL: That’s correct, Your Honor.
> THE COURT: And you won’t trust the government. So why would the government
> trust you?
> Ultimately, the court ordered Levison to turn over the encryption key
> within
> twenty-four hours. Had the government taken Levison up on his offer, he may
> have provided it with Snowden’s data. Instead, by demanding the keys that
> unlocked all of Lavabit, the government provoked Levison to make a last
> stand. According to the U.S. Attorney MacBride’s motion for sanctions,
> At approximately 1:30 p.m. CDT on August 2, 2013, Mr. Levison gave the
> F.B.I.
> a printout of what he represented to be the encryption keys needed to
> operate
> the pen register. This printout, in what appears to be four-point type,
> consists of eleven pages of largely illegible characters. To make use of
> these keys, the F.B.I. would have to manually input all two thousand five
> hundred and sixty characters, and one incorrect keystroke in this laborious
> process would render the F.B.I. collection system incapable of collecting
> decrypted data.
> The U.S. Attorneys’ office called Lavabit’s lawyer, who responded that
> Levison “thinks” he could have an electronic version of the keys produced
> by
> August 5th. Judge Hilton ordered that Levison and Lavabit be fined five
> thousand dollars for each day that they did not turn over the
> electronic-encryption keys. On August 8th, rather than turning over the
> master key, Levison shut down Lavabit. A week later, Levison’s lawyers
> announced that they were appealing to Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, an
> announcement that nearly got Levison into further trouble; the appeal was
> promptly placed under seal.
> Levison believes that when the government was faced with the choice between
> getting information that might lead it to its target in a constrained
> manner
> or expanding the reach of its surveillance, it chose the latter. The
> documents, and Levison’s comments to us, suggest that although he is a
> skeptic, he was willing to work with the government: he offered to write
> intercept code himself to capture their target’s metadata, and acknowledged
> that the government might have a right to the person’s information. He was
> willing to turn that information over, as he did in a case involving child
> pornography; Lavabit’s archived site in fact explicitly states that one of
> the reasons its most secure services are available to paying customers only
> is so that if an account “is used for illegal purposes that money trail can
> be used to track down the account owner.” But the government refused
> Levison’s offer. It wanted the keys to everything, so he gave it nothing.
> Levison will be back in court on Friday to file his opening brief with the
> Fourth Circuit. The brief is Levison’s principal opportunity to make his
> arguments. Levison may appeal the orders on a technological basis, and
> argue
> that the pen-register order did not require the surrender of the S.S.L.
> keys.
> Or he may appeal on a broader constitutional basis, and push the Fourth
> Circuit to evaluate the legality of back-door Internet-surveillance
> programs.
> On November 4th, the United States will file its response brief, after
> which
> oral arguments will follow. Due to the case’s sensitivity, the court may
> hold
> the arguments in secret. The United States and the court are waiting for
> Levison’s brief, which could break one of at least two ways.
> When this is all over, he plans to reopen Lavabit, if possible, in the
> United
> States; he intends to stay in the country no matter what. If Lavabit can’t
> operate securely in the U.S., he intends to hand off the project to someone
> in a country with more sympathetic laws, such as Iceland or Switzerland. In
> the meantime, he is beginning to think about the grander, harder project of
> creating a replacement for e-mail that can be truly secure and easy to use,
> although he’s not ready to say anything substantive about the project. With
> the muzzle largely removed, he is now reluctantly engaging in a media
> blitz,
> both to raise money for his legal defense through and to boost
> awareness of the grim nature of the surveillance state. When asked what he
> was doing differently with his computing habits to protect his
> communications, Levison offered an answer that’s becoming all too familiar
> from people of his ilk: he wanted to keep it at least some of it a secret.
> Michael Phillips is an associate at a Wall Street litigation firm. Matt
> Buchanan is the editor of Elements.
> Photograph by Mauricio Alejo.
> --
> Liberationtech is public & archives are searchable on Google. Violations
> of list guidelines will get you moderated:
> Unsubscribe, change to digest, or change password by emailing moderator at
> companys at <javascript:;>.
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <>

More information about the liberationtech mailing list