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Lavabit's Founder Is Crowdfunding His Privacy Fight on the Way to Court

"Defending the constitution is expensive."
Photo via Flickr

We knew something sketchy was going on when Lavabit, the secure email provider used by Edward Snowden, shut down in August in a defiant stance against government spying. Now, Lavabit founder Ladar Levinson has been cleared to talk about the criminal case he's facing, and newly public court documents shine a light on why the email service was shuttered.

Levinson is charged with refusing to comply with a secret FBI "pen order" to hand over information from user emails—"to" and "from" lines, IP addresses, and the encryption keys needed for the government to monitor users’ messages. Because the request was for metadata, the Feds didn't need probable cause of a crime. To Levinson, this felt like a betrayal of his customers' trust.

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The court order came weeks after Snowden leaked information on the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program. Levinson maintains that the government had zero legal basis for demanding the confidential information. On top of that, he claims handing over that data would have allowed the Feds to also access passwords, credit card information, and the content in emails and instant message conversations.

After a judge ruled that Levinson be fined $5,000 a day for contempt of court until he handed over the encryption keys, he shuttered the service, putting the surveillance threat to bed. At the time, Lavabit's founder said he refused "to be complicit in crimes against the American people and the US constitution." Now he's taking that fight to court. But, he said in a statement to press yesterday, "defending the constitution is expensive."

Embracing his new role as America’s privacy champion, Levinson's hoping to crowdfund the money for his defense in court, which opens tomorrow at Virginia's 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. So far, thanks to modest donations from several thousand supporters, he's already soared past yesterday's goal of $40,000 and is working toward a new goal of $96,000.

In the statement Levinson explained that closing the email service lost him his main source of income, and “without the donations people have made to the Lavabit Legal Defense Fund there is no way I would have been able to afford the legal support needed to win my appeal … I was afraid a precedent would be set that would allow our government to continue violating the intellectual property rights of American internet service providers and the privacy of honest citizens.”

If his fight makes it all the way to the Supreme Court, he'll need to raise at least $250,000 for the legal claims, he wrote. He also said that if he does win in court, it would allow him to resurrect Lavabit's secure email service.