NEW YORK — Ladar Levison, creator of the ultrasecure email service Lavabit, is an imperfect civil-liberties hero. He is not opposed to working with the government, and he set out to write code, not become an activist. But after being thrust into the public eye as email provider to former National Security Agency contractor and whistle-blower Edward Snowden, he could now set a crucial precedent for online privacy.
At stake is a key — a string of letters, numbers and symbols — that unlocks many of the Internet’s most basic transactions, including messaging, banking and shopping. In order to spy on a Lavabit email address widely believed to be Snowden’s — though redacted from court filings — a federal judge ordered Levison to give the government his key. With it, agents at the Federal Bureau of Investigation would have been able to unlock the encryption protecting Lavabit, known as secure sockets layer, or SSL. They would have had the capability to read everything, including email content and credit card information, flowing from its 400,000 customers. After months of stalling, Levison turned over his SSL key but shut down his company.