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Here Are The Teeny-Tiny Printed Out Crypto Keys of Snowden’s Email Service

Recently unsealed court documents reveal a memento from the Snowden leaks.

by Joseph Cox
Mar 17 2016, 4:19pm

Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

In 2013, the FBI famously demanded that Lavabit, a privacy-focused email service, hand over its private encryption keys. Ostensibly, this was in an effort to monitor Edward Snowden, a fan of the service, but would have granted investigators the ability to snoop on anyone using Lavabit.

Grudgingly, Ladar Levision complied. Well, sort of: He sent the FBI several pages of tiny text, spelling out the SSL keys of Lavabit. Unimpressed, the authorities continued to push Levison, until he voluntarily shut down the service in order to protect the privacy of his users.

Now, those pages of largely illegible text, which were included as an exhibit in the legal tussle between Levison and the authorities, have been unsealed in the Eastern District of Virginia.

"At approximately 1:30pm CDT on August 2, 2013, Mr. Levison gave the FBI a printout of what he represented to be the encryption keys needed to operate the pen register," a motion for sanctions signed by James L. Trump from the US Attorney's Office reads. According to the case docket, the documents were unsealed on March 4.

"This printout, in what appears to be 4-point type, consists of 11 pages of largely illegible characters," the motion continues. "The attachment was created by scanning the document provided by Mr. Levison; the original document was described by the Dallas FBI agents as slightly clearer than the scanned copy but nevertheless illegible."

Clearly, the feds were pretty frustrated at what lay ahead of them. "Moreoever, each of the five encryption keys contains 512 individual characters—or a total of 2560 characters," the motion reads. "To make use of these keys, the FBI would have to manually input all 2560 characters, and one incorrect keystroke in this laborious process would render the FBI collection system incapable of collecting decrypted data."

"To make use of these keys, the FBI would have to manually input all 2560 characters"

As has already been reported, from here, Levison was ordered to hand over an electronic version of Lavabit's keys. In response, Levison shuttered the email service. He was reportedly threatened with criminal charges, but Lavabit's closure was largely the end of the episode.

The copies of the crypto keys in the unsealed documents are embedded below. The motion reads that 11 pages were submitted, but it appears that the keys were squeezed into six pages for the filing. That, or the attachment only included six pages.