FBI Targeted Snowden Through Lavabit Email Service, Unredacted Doc Confirms

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.

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“Can the federal government be trusted to defend our rights, and protect our freedom?”
—Ladar Levison

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.”