Meet Lavabit's founder: An American hero hiding in plain sight

Ladar Levison rebuffed government demands for total access to his secure email service -- and lost his livelihood as a result

In a week or so, Julian Assange is about to get the Hollywood treatment in a big way when "The Fifth Estate" opens nationwide. (Look for a snarky review of it coming to a blog near you.) I'm sure it will paint Assange as a nerdy-smart-yet-dashing counterculture antihero, doing battle with the forces of evil instead of, say, a nerdy-smart-yet-arrogant d-bag doing battle with the forces of ego (and losing).

Meanwhile, real heroes like Ladar Levison are being overlooked. He's taken a principled stand against government overreach and is now paying the price -- yet nobody is likely to cast Benedict Cumberbatch to portray him in a movie.

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Regular readers may remember back in August, when Levison made news by publicly shutting down his Lavabit encrypted email business. Lavabits had received a surprise endorsement two months earlier, when Edward Snowden revealed he had an account with the service. Signups increased overnight by a factor of 20. The small two-person operation suddenly had more business than it could handle, along with an unexpected request it couldn't handle: The FBI was knocking on Levison's door, demanding the keys to his kingdom.

Levison's story could not be told with any detail until last week when a federal court unsealed 162 pages of documents relating to his case. New York Times reporters Nicole Perlroth and Scott Shane dug into the documents, and New Yorker writers Michael Phillips and Matt Buchanan snagged an interview with Levison, who is still legally forbidden to confirm the name of the person the FBI was inquiring about. (If it's not Edward Snowden, it must be Voldemort.)

Within the letter of the law

Let's get something straight: Levison is not Anonymous. He has no issues about complying with limited legal requests. He has handed over information about suspects in child porn cases, for example. But the feds didn't want just information about he-who-shall-not-be-named -- they wanted access to everything. And that Levison simply couldn't stomach.

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