One private individual stands out for his quiet courage in the face of a government committed to destroying the right of privacy: Ladar Levison, the founder of a company named Lavabit, which over the last decade has provided hack-proof internet services, including email.
Lavabit, it turns out, had the grand good luck of hosting the email account of a former NSA employee of recent fame named -- you guessed it -- Edward Snowden. In an interview with the UK-based newspaper, The Guardian, which broke the Snowden story, Levison stated that "We are entering a time of state-sponsored intrusion into our privacy that we haven't seen since the McCarthy era. And it's on a much broader scale."
Not surprisingly, the NSA paid Mr. Levison a visit sometime shortly after Snowden became a worldwide household name via his revelation of NSA's wholesale interception of the communications of hundreds of millions of American citizens. Invoking provisions of the U.S. criminal code, the NSA issued a so-called National Security Letter ("NSL") demanding that Levison agree to turn over encryption keys for an individual email address, and install a so-called "pen register trap and trace" device (effectively, an NSA "shunt) to defeat the privacy services he had spent a decade perfecting.
By the terms of Title 18, section 2703(b), the criminal provisions of the United States Code applicable to Internet providers, a recipient of an NSL must comply with the request to intercept the designated communication and, under penalty of imprisonment and fine, cannot alert the person whose communications are being intercepted. In fact, the recipient of an NSL cannot tell anyone that they have even received an NSL; they can tell a lawyer to obtain legal advice.
Specifically, the NSA demanded that Levison turn over Lavabit's encryption key to permit the NSA to read (presumably) Snowden's emails. After initially resisting, Levison grudgingly turned over the 2,500-plus encryption key in the form of an 11-page hard copy printout, in hard-to-read 4-point type, which the NSA would have been required to key in, one digit at a time; one mistake typing the 2,500-plus keys and, poof, the decryption effort fails. Levison's response? You asked for it, you got it!
In response, the government demanded a digital copy of the encryption key, and a lap dog U.S. magistrate in the Eastern District of Virginia, issued an order compelling Levison to make it easy for the government under penalty of criminal contempt. God forbid they actually learn analog skills like typing.
The NSA requested "pen register trap and trace device," is simply a "shunt" which would defeat any effort at privacy by automatically sending NSA what now is called "metadata," (i) the "from" line of the email sender, (ii) the "to" line of the recipient, and -- critically -- the "IP" (aka "internet protocol") address of the sender.
The "IP" address is a 12-digit number, for example, 173.081.121.154, which happens to be the (highly public) "IP" address of Suddenlink Communications. There are about 4 billion unique "IP" addresses worldwide. A typical office worker uses multiple IP addresses every day -- one at work, one at home, and possibly one on a Wi-Fi enabled smart phone.
Give the NSA your "IP" address and they can be at your house in, literally, a nanosecond, silently monitoring every Web page you surf, and every email you send or receive. And everything you "say," if you subscribe to any of the so-called VOIP (voice-over-Internet-protocol) telephone service from providers like Vonage or Suddenlink. (You're "bundled" all right).
Faced with the choice of complying with the NSA's demands, as the price of continuing to conduct his business, Levison opted to shutter his business. In other words, rather than conduct his business in a way that defeated its sole advertised purpose -- providing privacy to technically savvy email customers -- Levison shut the whole thing down.
"I will stand on my soapbox and shout and shout as loudly as I can for as long as people will listen. My biggest fear is that the sacrifice of my business will have been in vain. My greatest hope is that same sacrifice will result in a positive change." The very least we -- the intended beneficiaries of Levison's courage and sacrifice -- can do, is listen -- listen intently.
But if you value your civil liberties more than your inalienable right to watch "Homeland" or "24" reruns (encouraging us to passively accept the idea of unlimited governmental surveillance as the price of "liberty"), you can contribute to Lavabit's legal defense fund by clicking on the PayPal button at the bottom of the otherwise inactive Web page at lavabit.com. Or https://rally.org/lavabit. As of this writing 1,814 people have contributed $72,640 dollars, an average of $40 each, but many in amounts as low as $5, the price of a grande latte.DePaulo is a lawyer in Charleston.