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

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Per the Times:

Mr. Levison was willing to allow investigators with a court order to tap Mr. Snowden's e-mail account; he had complied with similar narrowly targeted requests involving other customers about two dozen times.

But they wanted more, he said: the passwords, encryption keys and computer code that would essentially allow the government untrammeled access to the protected messages of all his customers. That, he said, was too much.

"You don't need to bug an entire city to bug one guy's phone calls," Mr. Levison, 32, said in a recent interview. "In my case, they wanted to break open the entire box just to get to one connection."

Of course, the feds don't take no for an answer. They obtained a court order demanding Levison hand over the encryption keys. He did -- by printing out 11 pages of randomly generated numbers using a 4-point font that was difficult to scan and "largely illegible," according to court documents.

Truth and consequences

A judge then began fining Levison $5,000 a day until he turned over the keys in digital format. Two days later he did -- then promptly shut down the service. But first he offered to write code (for a fee of $3,500) that would allow the feds to intercept Snowden/Voldemort's email metadata -- and only that data. That offer was not accepted.

Now Levison is a man without a business that he had been building for 10 years and had 400,000 customers when he pulled the plug. He told the New Yorker that he might reopen the business once his appeal has made its way through the courts -- if not here, then in a country like Iceland. He's raising money for his defense and even hinted he's trying to cook up a way to make email actually secure from the forces of evil.

One man, standing up to the U.S. government to defend a basic founding principle of our country -- sounds like a great movie to me.

Do we need more people like Ladar Levison? Weigh in below or email me:

This article, "Meet Lavabit's founder: An American hero hiding in plain sight," was originally published at Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, follow Cringely on Twitter, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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