FBI: All your emails belong to us E-mail
Written by Mark Nichols   

Do you use email? Of course you do. Just about everyone does. Should the federal government be able to read your emails without a warrant? Of course not. But they are doing just that. According to an article in the New York Times, a court case currently playing out between a businessman and the feds provides interesting insights into the “post 9/11 world.” According to the Times, a federal judge has unsealed documents in a case involving the owner of the encrypted email service provider, Lavabit, which former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden was using. The case has been unfolding since last May.

The nature of the battle is this. The FBI wanted to install a tap on Snowden’s email account under a “pen register” order, which would have let federal agents read all of Snowden’s emails. Levison had no problem with that.

What he wouldn’t do is sell out the rest of his customers, much to the chagrin of the FBI.

Levison told the Times that the government claimed they needed “passwords, encryption keys and computer code that would give agents unfettered access to every email sent or received by any of his customers.

Levison bravely refused to comply with this “request.”

“You don’t need to bug an entire city to bug one guy’s phone calls,” Levison told the Times.

“In my case, they wanted to break open the entire box just to get to one connection.”

Integrity is rapidly becoming an endangered species. But rather than let the feds spy on his more than 400,000 clients, he decided to shut the whole thing down to protect his customers.

So what price did Levison pay for taking a stand against the ever-expanding surveillance state besides having to close his business?

The government moved to sanction Levison on August 5, after he provided the FBI a “printout of what he represented to be the encryption keys needed to operate the pen register. They complained,

“This printout, in what appears to be 4-point type, consists of 11 pages of largely illegible characters.”

If you know anything about the FBI and computers you can understand their frustration.

“Moreover, each of the five encryption keys contains 512 individual characters—or a total of 2560 characters. To make use of these keys, the FBI would have to manually input all 2560 characters, and one incorrect keystroke in this laborious process would render the FBI collection system incapable of collecting decrypted data,” the government further complained.

In other words, the government is fining Levison because of their inability to break his code, despite the fact that they’ve already put him out of business.

The government then attempted to get Levison to provide an electronic copy of the keys to unlock the code.

When the government did not receive the electronic encryption keys by August 5, the government moved to have Levison fined $5000 per day.

It must not be extortion when the government does it.

Judge Claude M. Hilton in Alexandria, Virginia, granted the order for sanctions.

In a proceeding on July 16, where the government was trying to have Levison held in contempt of court, an attorney for the government, James Trump said to the judge, “What Mr. Levison is trying to do, Your Honor, is invite industry to come in and litigate as a surrogate for him the issue of whether the encryption keys are part and parcel of the pen register order. And that’s one of the reasons we sought the search warrant, to make it clear, whether through the search warrant or pen register order, he is required to provide these keys.”

“We know he’s been in contact with attorneys who also represent industry groups and others who have litigated issues like this in the WikiLeaks context and others,” Trump added. These attorneys have “litigated privacy-related issues.” The judge was referring to an unsuccessful push to have requests for Twitter data of three individuals, who volunteered for WikiLeaks unsealed.
Levison and Lavabit argued, “If the government gains access to Lavabit’s Master Key, it will have unlimited access to not only [Edward Snowden's email account], but all of the communications and data stored in each of Lavabit’s 400,000 email accounts. None of these other users’ email accounts are at issue in this matter. However, production of the Master Key will compromise the security of these users.”

Levison also challenged the gag order placed on him by the court sealing documents. A motion argued, “The Lavabit Order’s non-disclosure provision is a content-based restriction that is not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest,” and violates the First Amendment.

The gag order effectively meant that Levison could not contact Lavabit subscribers to inform them that they were subject to government surveillance.

Levison told the Times he was willing to compromise. He would be willing to log the FBI’s target’s communications, unscramble them with the encryption keys and upload them to a government server once a day.”

The FBI told him that was not enough. It needed his target’s communications ‘in real time.”

“How as a small business do you hire the lawyers to appeal this and change public opinion to get the laws changed when Congress doesn’t even know what is going on?” Levison asked the Times.

Senator Patrick Leahy recently remarked that lawmakers learn more about the surveillance state by reading the paper than they do in so-called classified briefings.

Levison shut down his business just as he was complying with the request to turn over digital keys. He did this to protect those using his service from intrusive surveillance the government felt it needed to engage in to collect data from Snowden’s account.

“This was about the lengths our government was willing to go to conduct Internet surveillance program,” Levison explained to the Times.

So just remember, all you small business people out there- when it comes to the feds it’s play ball or else.

The impact this will have on US firms like Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and others remains to be seen.

However, it’s now obvious that if you want any privacy in terms of electronic communication, you probably shouldn’t do business with American companies that won’t be able to tell you if you’re a target because of a gag order.

Welcome to the new America. We'll close with an editorial comment from Al Pacino's Lt. Col. Frank Slade from the film "Scent of a Woman." Call it an ode to those that refuse to board the rat ship.

I don't know if Charlie's silence here today is right or wrong; I'm not a judge or jury. But I can tell you this — he won't sell anybody out to buy his future! And that, my friends, is called integrity. That's called courage. Now that's the stuff leaders should be made of.


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