The FBI was trying to spy on Edward Snowden in 2013 when it targeted the secure email service he used, Lavabit, newly released documents have revealed.
The Guardian reported the news on Friday, noting that the disclosure was accidental: it was only the government's own redaction error that finally confirmed the fact observers and privacy rights activists had long suspected, but which Lavabit's creator is still legally barred from discussing.
Lavabit was shut down by owner and creator Ladar Levison in late 2013 in a remarkable refusal to bow to government interference that was lauded by privacy advocates and hailed by Snowden as "inspiring."
In the wake of Snowden's leak of NSA documents in June 2013, the FBI had served Levison with a court order demanding that the startup head hand over private encryption keys that would have allowed the U.S. government access to the emails of all of Lavabit's users.
"What ensued was a flurry of legal proceedings that would last 38 days," Levison wrote in The Guardian in 2013 upon shutting down his service, "ending not only my startup but also destroying, bit by bit, the very principle upon which I founded it—that we all have a right to personal privacy."
Levison maintained that providing the encryption keys would compromise the privacy of all of his 410,000 users, and shuttered the company rather than allow the privacy intrusion to proceed. The company was held in contempt as a result of Levison's decision and he was "gagged by law even from discussing the legal challenges [the company] has mounted and the court proceeding it has engaged," Glenn Greenwald reported at the time.
"Can the federal government be trusted to defend our rights, and protect our freedom?"
Despite the government's revealing error, Levison is still not allowed to disclose who the FBI was targeting. "Three years later, I still cannot tell you who they were after," Levison told Wired before the accidentally unredacted documents were made public. "I keep getting asked the question, and I can’t answer."
The Guardian reported on Friday that "the documents were released after legal action from Levison, who has been fighting in an attempt to lift himself from his order of silence and reveal what really happened." Levison has been fighting a years-long court battle to force the government to release documents related to the case, funding his fight with supporters' donations.
"A motion filed in December prompted the court to order the release of files within the case, specifically with the identity of the subscriber redacted. As the documents show, that didn’t happen," the newspaper noted. "Snowden’s email address was left unredacted, and while Levison is still under order not to reveal who the FBI was after, the redaction error has confirmed Snowden as the target."
Observers have noted that the Lavabit case has similarities to today's Apple vs. FBI battle over the government's demand that Apple create a "master key" to break into the phone of a suspected San Bernardino shooter.
The U.S. government has also taken note of the parallels, even going so far as to cite the Lavabit case in a footnote in a March 10 court brief arguing that it has a legal right to force Apple to create a "backdoor" to the iPhone's operating system.
In a Facebook post, Levison pointedly responded:
"This citation presupposes a deliberate attempt to seek the creation of a legal framework, through the courts, for the forced forfeiture of intellectual property which 'might' facilitate surveillance. There is no basis, in case law or statute, for such authority, and suggests a strategy designed to revive the Star Chamber, and thwart the constitutional rights of all Americans. Laws formed in secret will always find themselves wanting for authority as they, by definition, lack the consent of the people."
Levison concluded, "The current Apple case, together with the Lavabit case, join a growing litany of recent court decisions which have eroded away our personal liberties. Taken together, these rulings force us to ask difficult questions. Specifically, can the federal government be trusted to defend our rights, and protect our freedom?"