Privacy takes a beating in the FBI's kangaroo court

Feds ran roughshod over Lavabit, forcing it to shut down and proving the government is fighting to win -- and fighting dirty -- in the privacy wars

The cyber-privacy wars continue, but it still looks like we're losing and losing huge. Two steps forward followed by sucker punches to the face, gut, and crotch resulting in 15 steps back. I think that's about right, and I've really run out of contemptuous snarky comments here other than ... wow.

In Privacy Wars Episode 3,457: A New Hope, Silent Circle just raised $30 million in VC funding. These are the guys working on building NSA-frustrating and publicly available encryption as well as the Blackphone Batman keeps in his utility belt, so investors think they're a pretty good bet since people are a little tired of every hack-nerd and cyber-spy setting up shop in their shorts. The bucks come from Cain Capital and Ross Perot Jr., who must be getting a late start ticking off his dad.

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Silent Circle is also one of two founding members of the dramatically named Dark Mail Technical Alliance. The other one is Lavabit, a fairly young email provider that was naively founded on the principal that we deserve our digital privacy. It foolishly sought to enforce this maxim by offering features like asymmetric encryption. Tellingly, its most famous customer was Edward Snowden.

Those are the two not-so-recent steps forward for us. Now the bad news.

In Privacy Wars episode 3,458: The Empire Strikes Back, it turns out that the Dark Mail Technical Alliance is actually a solo operation because the federales forced Lavabit to shut down last August.

The story starts with some FBI agents showing up at Lavabit's offices one fine morning (right after it was suggested that Snowden had been a customer -- what an amazing coincidence) without even the basic decency of bringing coffee and donuts. They demanded that the company allow it to install surveillance equipment on its network. Hey, why not? The FBI then also presented a court order demanding that Lavabit fork over its private encryption keys so it could access minor information like all customer passwords. Lavabit dug its heels in at that point and told the Feebs it wasn't going to comply until it got legal advice.

But the FBI apparently anticipated that move because it immediately fired off a machine-gun blast of legal documents, including an eventual summons to appear in a Virginia court in 48 hours even though Lavabit operations were located in Texas. Lavabit's founder, Ladar Levison, claims he spent the first two weeks trying to find an attorney who understood both privacy and technology well enough to represent him (and we all know how easy it is to find a tech-savvy lawyer) only to find that when he got to Virginia, the court denied him the right to counsel since the government was only after his property not his personal freedom. He wound up facing the judge alone. Wow.

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