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US tried to ban email service linked to Snowden, Lavabit, from alerting users to court order demanding access to network, appeal papers allege

The founder of secure email provider Lavabit, Ladar Levison, has filed the opening brief of an appeal against a court order forcing him to hand over the service’s encryption keys.

Service: Ladar Levison closed the email provider in August

Lavabit is widely reported to have been used by US whistleblower Edward Snowden and Levison shut the service down in August in a bid to prevent American security services gaining further access to users’ information, saying that it would not “become complicit in crimes against the American people”.

In a later interview, Levison revealed that security restrictions that had been placed on him by American authorities meant there was information he couldn’t even share with his lawyer.

Levison was handed a daily fine of $5,000 by a district court in eastern Virginia when he initially refused to hand over data to authorities. He eventually complied but closed the business to protect current users because the order prevented him from disclosing that security services had accessed the network.

The appeal states: “The government would still be able to use Lavabit’s private keys to decrypt and access data that it had already intercepted (including customers’ usernames, passwords, and the contents of their emails) but Lavabit was forbidden from communicating this security breach to its customers or business partners.”

Levison has lodged the appeal on the grounds that the government did not have the statutory authority to command the production of Lavabit’s private keys; the Fourth Amendment prohibited the government’s actions; and the grand jury subpoena was “oppressive, unduly burdensome, and ought to have been quashed”.

Speaking before the appeal was lodged, Levison described that authorities’ requests as “game over” for an email service which sold itself on a guaranteed secure connection, adding: “How can you protect a network if they’re able to see everything that comes over it?”