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What Court Orders Led Email Service Lavabit to Shut Down?

The owner of the encrypted email service provider that former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden was reportedly using, Lavabit, which shut down early in August, apparently made the decision to stop operating after receiving a “pen register” order and an order under the Stored Communications Act, according to a legal filing posted by POLITICO‘s Josh Gerstein.

The filing, which was submitted under seal September 27 to the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, indicates that on June 10, 2013, Lavabit owner Ladar Levison received a 2703(d) order, which the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) describes as “a court order requiring disclosure of customer information from an electronic services provider upon a showing of ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe that the records “are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.” This was the order the government used to obtain Twitter data from three indviduals, who volunteered for WikiLeaks—Tor software developer Jacob Appelbaum, Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jonsdottir and Roy Gonggrijp.

On June 28, 2013, Levison received a “pen register” order. According an ACLU lawsuit seeking Justice Department records on pen register and trap and trace device use, these devices are “powerful tools used by law enforcement agencies to intercept non-content information from electronic communications, such as the ‘to’ and ‘from’ lines of emails, the telephone numbers a person dials and those from which he receives calls and the IP addresses of websites a person visits. Pen registers and trap and trace devices have been used tens of thousands of times annually by law enforcement components within” the Justice Department. They are authorized under the Pen Register Act of 1986.

An “Order to Show Cause” was apparently issued on July 9, which suggests that either Levison or the government was asked to justify or explain something further to the court. A motion to unseal records was also denied on July 16 and an order denying multiple motion, probably submitted by Levision, were denied on August 1.

On August 5, a general court order was issued. It was three days later that Levison made the announcement that, “After significant soul searching,” he had “decided to suspend operations.” He stated, “I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision. I cannot. I feel you deserve to know what’s going on–the first amendment is supposed to guarantee me the freedom to speak out in situations like this. Unfortunately, Congress has passed laws that say otherwise. As things currently stand, I cannot share my experiences over the last six weeks, even though I have twice made the appropriate requests.” [cont’d.]

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."