May 20th, 2014
My Fellow Citizens,
My legal saga started last summer with a knock at the door, behind which stood two federal agents ready to serve me with a court order requiring the installation of surveillance equipment on my company’s network.
My company, Lavabit, provided email services to 410,000 people, and thrived by offering features specifically designed to protect the privacy and security of its customers. I had no choice but to consent to the installation of their device, which would have provided the government with access to all of the messages, for all of my customers, as they travelled to and from other providers on the Internet.
But that wasn’t enough. The federal agents also said their court order required me to surrender the company’s private encryption keys, and I balked. What they claimed to need were customer passwords, which were sent securely, so they could access the plain-text of messages for users taking advantage of my company’s encrypted storage feature. (The government would later claim they only demanded the encryption keys because of my «noncompliance».) I didn’t realize until I retained an attorney that what the agents proposed would have exceeded their authority.
Bothered by what the agents were saying, I informed them I would first need to read the order they had just delivered and then consult with an attorney. The feds seemed surprised by my hesitation.
What ensued was a flurry of legal proceedings that would last 38 days. When the dust settled I found myself the owner of a $10,000 civil contempt fine, my business shut down, and bit by bit, the very principle upon which I founded it – that we all have a right to personal privacy, slipping quickly away. (To appreciate just how fast the case moved, consider the median timeframe for a similar proceedings was 9.7 months in 2012.)