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Lavabit founder Ladar Levison, ungagged

Ladar Levison, founder of the Lavabit encrypted email service used by whistleblower Edward Snowden this summer, is enjoying newfound freedom of speech now that a federal judge has unsealed key documents in his case, effectively lifting a gag order as his crowd-funded case goes forward.

Lavabit received unprecedented attention in July when Snowden used a email address to invite human rights groups such as Amnesty International to a press conference at the Moscow Airport, announcing his international requests for political asylum.

At a CNET/Electronic Frontier Foundation event in San Francisco on Monday, Levison could finally describe how secret court orders and an unconstitutional search warrant demanding Lavabit’s SSL key led him to close down the ten year old service rather than betray the trust of over 400,000 innocent users.

Unedited video captures the first half hour of the interview, conducted by CNET’s Declan McCullagh.

As Levison explains, the process began with visits from FBI agents verbally demanding the SSL key, accompanied by a court order that never mentioned it.  Levison wound up having to defend himself in a Virginia federal court while the government followed him, threatened him with prison, and assessed fines of $5000 per day until the FBI had the keys.  Levison managed to shut down the Lavabit service by the time he handed them over.

Levison’s detailed account clarifies a process by which the government obtains keys from private businesses to spy on users in bulk with little or no paper trail and without having to crack codes.

Levison has continued fighting back.  On Wednesday, Lavabit and secure communications provider Silent Circle announced the Dark Mail Alliance, which will deliver a more secure, easy-to-use encrypted email service for iOS and Android devices next year, using an open source version of Lavabit’s code and advanced Silent Circle technology.

You can support US constitutional rights to assembly and privacy, and the 4th Amendment prohibiting warrantless search, by joining thousands in contributing to Lavabit’s legal fund at If Lavabit wins the case, we all benefit.

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