“Lavabit, Snowden’s E-Mail Service, in a Legal Tug of War”

October 3, 2013

The New York Times on October 2, 2013 released the following:

By NICOLE PERLROTH and SCOTT SHANE

“DALLAS — One day last May, Ladar Levison returned home to find an F.B.I. agent’s business card on his Dallas doorstep. So began a four-month tangle with law enforcement officials that would end with Mr. Levison’s shutting the business he had spent a decade building and becoming an unlikely hero of privacy advocates in their escalating battle with the government over Internet security.

Prosecutors, it turned out, were pursuing a notable user of Lavabit, Mr. Levison’s secure e-mail service: Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked classified documents that have put the intelligence agency under sharp scrutiny. Mr. Levison was willing to allow investigators with a court order to tap Mr. Snowden’s e-mail account; he had complied with similar narrowly targeted requests involving other customers some two dozen times.

But they wanted more, he said: the passwords, encryption keys and computer code that would essentially allow the government untrammeled access to the protected messages of all his customers. That, he said, was too much.

“You don’t need to bug an entire city to bug one guy’s phone calls,” Mr. Levison, 32, said in a recent interview. “In my case, they wanted to break open the entire box just to get to one connection.”

On Aug. 8, Mr. Levison closed Lavabit rather than, in his view, betray his promise of secure e-mail to his customers. The move, which he explained in a letter on his Web site, drew fervent support from civil libertarians but was seen by prosecutors as an act of defiance that fell just short of a crime.

The full story of what happened to Mr. Levison since May has not previously been told, in part because he was subject to a court’s gag order. But on Wednesday, a federal judge unsealed documents in the case, allowing the tech entrepreneur to speak candidly for the first time about his experiences. He had been summoned to testify to a grand jury in Virginia; forbidden to discuss his case; held in contempt of court and fined $10,000 for handing over his private encryption keys on paper and not in digital form; and, finally, threatened with arrest for saying too much when he shuttered his business.

Spokesmen for the Justice Department and the F.B.I. said they had no comment beyond what was in the documents.

Mr. Levison’s battle to preserve his customers’ privacy comes at a time when Mr. Snowden’s disclosures have ignited a national debate about the proper limits of surveillance and government intrusion into American Internet companies that promise users that their digital communications are secure.

Much of the attention has been focused on Internet giants like Microsoft and Google. Lavabit, with just two employees and perhaps 40,000 regular users, was a midget by comparison, but its size and Mr. Levison’s personal pledge of security made it attractive to tech-savvy users like Mr. Snowden.

While Mr. Levison’s struggles have been with the F.B.I., hovering in the background is the N.S.A., which has worked secretly for years to undermine or bypass encrypted services like Lavabit so that their electronic message scrambling cannot obstruct the agency’s spying. Earlier in September, The New York Times, ProPublica and The Guardian wrote about the N.S.A.’s campaign to weaken encryption. Mr. Levison’s case shows how law enforcement officials can use legal tools to pry open messages, no matter how well protected.

Mr. Levison said he set up Lavabit to make it impossible for outsiders, whether governments or hackers, to spy on users’ communications. He followed the government’s own secure coding guidelines, based on the N.S.A.’s technical guidance, and engineered his systems so as not to log user communications. That way, even if he received a subpoena for a user’s communications, he would not be able to gain access to them. For added measure, he gave customers the option to pay extra to encrypt their e-mail and passwords.

Mr. Levison, who studied politics and computer science at Southern Methodist University, started Lavabit in April 2004, the same month Google rolled out Gmail. To pay his bills, he worked as a Web consultant, helping develop Web sites for major brands like Dr Pepper, Nokia and Adidas. But by 2010, the e-mail service had attracted enough paying customers to allow Mr. Levison to turn to Lavabit full time.

The agent did not mention at first who the government was pursuing, and Mr. Levison will not name the targets of the government’s investigation. The name was redacted from the court order unsealed Wednesday, but the offenses listed are violations of the Espionage Act, and the timing of the government’s case coincides with its leak investigation into Mr. Snowden, which began in May when he fled Hawaii for Hong Kong carrying laptops containing thousands of classified documents.

By then, Mr. Snowden’s Lavabit e-mail address was already public. He had listed his personal Lavabit e-mail address in January 2010, and was still using a Lavabit address this July, when he summoned reporters to a news conference at the Moscow airport.

That e-mail invitation proved to be an unintended endorsement for Lavabit’s security. Before that, Mr. Levison said that, on average, Lavabit was signing up 200 new users daily. In the days after Mr. Snowden’s e-mail, more than 4,000 new customers joined each day.

But a month before the news conference, court documents show, Mr. Levison had already received a subpoena for Mr. Snowden’s encrypted e-mail account. The government was particularly interested in his e-mail metadata — with whom Mr. Snowden was communicating, when and from where. The order, from the Federal District Court in Alexandria, Va., required Mr. Levison to log Mr. Snowden’s account information and provide the F.B.I. with “technical assistance,” which agents told him meant handing over the private encryption keys, technically called SSL certificates, that unlock communications for all users, he said.

“It was the equivalent of asking Coca-Cola to hand over its secret formula,” Mr. Levison said.

By July, he said, he had 410,000 registered users. Similar services like Hushmail, a Canadian encrypted e-mail service, had lost users in 2007 after court documents revealed that the company had handed 12 CDs’ worth of decoded e-mails from three Hushmail accounts to American law enforcement officials through a mutual assistance treaty.

“The whole concept of the Internet was built on the idea that companies can keep their own keys,” Mr. Levison said. He told the agents that he would need their request for his encryption keys in writing.

A redacted version of that request, which was among the 23 documents that were unsealed, shows that the court issued an order July 16 for Lavabit’s encryption keys. Prosecutors said they had no intention of collecting any information on Lavabit’s 400,000 other customers. “There’s no agents looking through the 400,000 other bits of information, customers, whatever,” Jim Trump, one of the prosecutors, said at a closed Aug. 1 hearing.

But Mr. Levison said he spent much of the following day thinking of a compromise. He would log the target’s communications, unscramble them with the encryption keys and upload them to a government server once a day. The F.B.I. told him that was not enough. It needed his target’s communications “in real time,” he said.

“How as a small business do you hire the lawyers to appeal this and change public opinion to get the laws changed when Congress doesn’t even know what is going on?” Mr. Levison said.

When it was clear Mr. Levison had no choice but to comply, he devised a way to obey the order but make the government’s intrusion more arduous. On Aug 2, he infuriated agents by printing the encryption keys — long strings of seemingly random numbers — on paper in a font he believed would be hard to scan and turn into a usable digital format. Indeed, prosecutors described the file as “largely illegible.”

On Aug. 5, Judge Claude M. Hilton ordered a $5,000-a-day fine until Mr. Levison produced the keys in electronic form. Mr. Levison’s lawyer, Jesse R. Binnall, appealed both the order to turn over the keys and the fine.

After two days, Mr. Levison gave in, turning over the digital keys — and simultaneously closing his e-mail service, apologizing to customers on his site. That double maneuver, a prosecutor later told his lawyer, fell just short of a criminal act.

He hopes to resurrect the business he spent a decade building. “This wasn’t about one person,” Mr. Levison said. “This was about the lengths our government was willing to go to conduct Internet surveillance on one person.””

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Douglas McNabb – McNabb Associates, P.C.’s
Federal Criminal Defense Attorneys Videos:

Federal Crimes – Be Careful

Federal Crimes – Be Proactive

Federal Crimes – Federal Indictment

Federal Crimes – Detention Hearing

Federal Crimes – Appeal

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To find additional federal criminal news, please read Federal Criminal Defense Daily.

Douglas McNabb and other members of the U.S. law firm practice and write and/or report extensively on matters involving Federal Criminal Defense, INTERPOL Red Notice Removal, International Extradition Defense, OFAC SDN Sanctions Removal, International Criminal Court Defense, and US Seizure of Non-Resident, Foreign-Owned Assets. Because we have experience dealing with INTERPOL, our firm understands the inter-relationship that INTERPOL’s “Red Notice” brings to this equation.

The author of this blog is Douglas C. McNabb. Please feel free to contact him directly at mcnabb@mcnabbassociates.com or at one of the offices listed above.


Man Offers Guilty Plea, Upending Terror Case

June 14, 2012

The New York Times on June 13, 2012 released the following:

“By BENJAMIN WEISER

A terrorism case in Manhattan that raised key questions about government interrogation tactics ended abruptly on Wednesday after the defendant pleaded guilty to conspiring to support a Somali terrorist group.

The defendant, an Eritrean man named Mohamed Ibrahim Ahmed, admitted in Federal District Court that he trained in a camp run by the Somali group, Al Shabab, in 2009. The case had been seen as a potential test of the Obama administration’s strategy of interrogating terrorism suspects for both intelligence and law enforcement purposes.

Indeed, the plea came as the judge, P. Kevin Castel, was poised to rule on a motion by Mr. Ahmed’s lawyers seeking suppression of statements he had made to the Federal Bureau of Investigation while he was in custody in Nigeria; his lawyers argued that the statements had not been voluntary and, thus, were inadmissible.

“I have in my hand a 60-page draft of the decision on the motion to suppress,” Judge Castel, holding up a thick document, said in court before accepting Mr. Ahmed’s plea. The judge did not reveal how he would have ruled on the motion, but said that the ruling itself would “now be suppressed.”

Mr. Ahmed, 38, who had lived in Sweden, was scheduled for trial on July 9. He had been accused of providing material support to a terrorist group, receiving training and bomb-making instruction in Shabab military camps in Somalia in 2009 and using a firearm in a crime of violence. The firearm count alone carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years and a maximum sentence of life in prison. As a result of Mr. Ahmed’s plea — to two conspiracy counts — he faces a maximum sentence of 10 years when he is sentenced on Nov. 2, the judge said in court.

Mr. Ahmed’s lawyer, Sabrina Shroff, said after the proceeding, “I’m sure Mr. Ahmed would have liked to have challenged the actions of the United States.” But, she added, given the difference between a maximum 10-year sentence and what could have resulted from a guilty verdict, it would have been a “humongous risk” to go to trial.

Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, said Mr. Ahmed had “traveled a long way from his home in Sweden to Somalia, where he took up the cause of Al Shabab, a deadly terrorist organization and sworn enemy of the United States and its people.”

Mr. Ahmed told the judge that in Somalia, he contributed 2,000 euros to Al Shabab and trained in one of its military camps, knowing that the United States considered it a terrorist organization.

Mr. Ahmed was taken into custody by Nigeria in 2009 under suspicion of being an agent for Al Qaeda. He was later interrogated by separate groups of American officials, known colloquially as “dirty” and “clean” teams.

The first team questioned him for intelligence purposes, without advising him of his rights, prosecutors have said. About a week later, a second team, of F.B.I. agents, read him his rights, which he waived, and he began to make incriminating statements, the government says. An issue before the judge had been how separate the American officials kept the two interrogations.

A prosecutor, Benjamin Naftalis, told Judge Castel that had the case gone to trial, the evidence would have included Mr. Ahmed’s statements and testimony from cooperating witnesses. Prosecutors have said a former Shabab military commander has been cooperating; although he has not been identified, his description resembles that of Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, a Somali captured by the United States military last year and questioned aboard a naval vessel for about two months.”

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Douglas McNabb – McNabb Associates, P.C.’s
Federal Criminal Defense Attorneys Videos:

Federal Crimes – Be Careful

Federal Crimes – Be Proactive

Federal Crimes – Federal Indictment

————————————————————–

To find additional federal criminal news, please read Federal Criminal Defense Daily.

Douglas McNabb and other members of the U.S. law firm practice and write and/or report extensively on matters involving Federal Criminal Defense, INTERPOL Red Notice Removal, International Extradition Defense, OFAC SDN Sanctions Removal, International Criminal Court Defense, and US Seizure of Non-Resident, Foreign-Owned Assets. Because we have experience dealing with INTERPOL, our firm understands the inter-relationship that INTERPOL’s “Red Notice” brings to this equation.

The author of this blog is Douglas C. McNabb. Please feel free to contact him directly at mcnabb@mcnabbassociates.com or at one of the offices listed above.


S.E.C. Told to Share Notes in Insider Trading Case

March 28, 2012

The New York Times on March 27, 2012 released the following:

“BY PETER LATTMAN

A federal judge has ordered Securities and Exchange Commission lawyers to turn over their notes to federal prosecutors handling the criminal case against Rajat K. Gupta, a former director of Goldman Sachs.

The ruling was part of a flurry of pretrial orders from Judge Jed S. Rakoff, who is presiding over the case.

Mr. Gupta, who is charged with leaking Goldman’s boardroom secrets to his friend, the convicted hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam, is scheduled to go on trial May 21.

Among the more significant orders, Judge Rakoff said federal prosecutors must review the S.E.C.’s notes about 44 interviews of witnesses during its investigation of Mr. Gupta and disclose any exculpatory evidence to the defense. Federal prosecutors in the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan, who jointly conducted the 44 interviews with the S.E.C., argued that they had no obligation to review the S.E.C.’s notes because the two investigations were separate.

Judge Rakoff disagreed with the government’s position.

“That separate government agencies having overlapping jurisdiction will cooperate in the factual investigation of the same alleged misconduct makes perfect sense; but that they can then disclaim such cooperation to avoid their respective discovery obligations makes no sense at all,” Judge Rakoff wrote.

The S.E.C. and the Justice Department have long run parallel investigations, but the line between them can often become blurred. Judge Rakoff noted that there was a constitutional duty for prosecutors to disclose any exculpatory evidence — called Brady material — to the defense, regardless of whether the notes came from the S.E.C.

“To hold that these memoranda were not created as part of a joint factual investigation would make a mockery of the ‘joint investigation’ standard as applied to the defendant’s constitutional right to receive all information the government has available to it that tends to show his innocence,” Judge Rakoff wrote.

In other rulings, Judge Rakoff ordered that Lloyd C. Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, must sit for an additional two hours of depositions to be taken by Mr. Gupta’s lawyers. Mr. Blankfein was deposed for seven hours last month, and is expected to be a witness at Mr. Gupta’s trial.

The dispute over Mr. Blankfein’s testimony arose when, during the February deposition, Mr. Gupta’s lawyer asked Mr. Blankfein whom he had met with to prepare for the deposition. He responded that he had met with both federal prosecutors, S.E.C. lawyers and an F.B.I. agent. When Mr. Gupta’s lawyer asked Mr. Blankfein what the government asked at these meetings, the S.E.C. objected, citing work product protections.

Judge Rakoff ruled that Mr. Blankfein must answer these questions.

“By asking Blankfein what topics he recalls were discussed, what questions he was asked and what documents he was shown, defendants seek to discover how the preparation sessions affected Blankfein’s testimony, and do not demonstrate a mere naked attempt to obtain the S.E.C.’s and the U.S.A.O.’s legal opinions and strategy,” the judge wrote.

Judge Rakoff also issued several rulings that went against Mr. Gupta. He denied his lawyers’ motion to suppress the use of wiretaps at trial and to dismiss three of the counts in the government’s complaint that were claimed to be either vague or duplicative.

On the wiretap issue, Judge Rakoff said: “The simple truth is that, in both this and numerous other cases, insider trading cannot often be detected, let alone successfully prosecuted, without the aid of wiretaps.””

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Douglas McNabb – McNabb Associates, P.C.’s
Federal Criminal Defense Attorneys Videos:

Federal Crimes – Be Careful

Federal Crimes – Be Proactive

Federal Crimes – Federal Indictment

————————————————————–

To find additional federal criminal news, please read Federal Crimes Watch Daily.

Douglas McNabb and other members of the U.S. law firm practice and write and/or report extensively on matters involving Federal Criminal Defense, INTERPOL Red Notice Removal, International Extradition and OFAC SDN Sanctions Removal.

The author of this blog is Douglas C. McNabb. Please feel free to contact him directly at mcnabb@mcnabbassociates.com or at one of the offices listed above.