A federal appeals court upheld a contempt of court citation Wednesday against Ladar Levison, the founder of the shuttered email service provider Lavabit, for refusing to hand over encryption keys to the FBI.
Levison founded Lavabit in 2004, and the company gained attention last year as the email service provider of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. It is still not confirmed whether the FBI was looking to snoop on Snowden’s email with the request, though court filings strongly suggest that that was the intent, according to a report by Wired.
In June, Lavabit was served with a pen register order by the government, and Levison refused on the grounds that it wouldn’t be possible with the encryption system he had built. A month later, he was ordered to turn over the private SSL key that would would allow the FBI to decrypt traffic directly.
Levison refused to comply again, and US District Judge Claude M. Hilton found him in contempt, imposing a $5,000 fine for each day he refused to hand over the keys. Levison handed them over two days later.
Levison appealed the contempt finding but on Wednesday the appeals court said the ruling would stand because Levinson didn’t challenge the court order in the lower court. Prior to the appeal Levison only made one objection to turning over the SSL keys in court.
“I have only ever objected to turning over the SSL keys because that would compromise all of the secure communications in and out of my network, including my own administrative traffic,” he said.
According to Wired, “The Lavabit case is the only publicly documented instance where a district judge ordered an internet company to hand over its SSL key to the US government. If the practice had been given the imprimatur of the US 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, it could have opened a new avenue for US spies to expand their surveillance against users of US internet services like Gmail and Dropbox.”