The owner of an encrypted email service used by NSA leaker Edward Snowden could be facing contempt of court charges after refusing to hand over his users' information to spooks, according to a recent report.
Ladar Levison dramatically shut down his email firm, Lavabit, after being whacked with a secret federal court order. Although Levison has not revealed details of the order, it is likely to have demanded that he hand over reams of information to investigators working on the Snowden case.
By closing down Lavabit, Levison may have sought to avoid giving spooks the information they were looking for.
"I could be arrested for this action," the rebellious email boss told NBC reporters.
“I would love to tell you everything that’s happened to me over the last six weeks. I’m just legally prevented from doing so,” Levison told the Russia Today newsite.
The court order that spurred Levison to close down Lavabit is likely to have been a national security letter or a sealed subpoena. Spooks suspect that Lavabit has records of Snowden's emails, as the whistleblower sent emails from his bolthole in Moscow airport using the address email@example.com.
A source "familiar with the matter" told NBC that James Trump, a senior lawyer at the US attorney’s office in Alexandria, Virginia, had sent an email to Levison's legal counsel on the day that Lavabit closed down, warning that he may have "violated the court order" - a threat which carries the clear inference that Levison could be hauled up on contempt of court charges.
Levison claimed he had complied with the terms of more than two dozen court orders aimed at "specific users" in recent years. But the latest request was simply too broad and would have slurped up information about all his customers.
"I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit," Levinson said in a statement on the firm's homepage. "After significant soul searching, I have decided to suspend operations."
"This experience has taught me one very important lesson: without congressional action or a strong judicial precedent, I would strongly recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States."
In this statement, Levison claimed he had been threatened with arrest "multiple times over the past six weeks".
"I think it's important to point out that what prompted me to shut down my service wasn't access to one person's data. It was about protecting the privacy of all my users," he continued.
The US Attorney's Office has refused to elaborate on the case. "We have no comment," Andrew Ames, a spokesman for the Justice Department, told the news site.
Lavabit has started up a defence fund and is looking for cash to run a legal campaign. Full details can be found on the firm's website. So far, the funding drive has raised about $100,000.
The email firm's legal battle is being backed by Ron Paul, a Republican presidential candidate on the libertarian side of the party, who said backing the case "should be in the interests of everybody who cares about liberty". ®