Lavabit Details Unsealed: Refused To Hand Over Private SSL Key Despite Court Order & Daily Fines

from the as-expected dept

It appears that some of the details that resulted in Lavabit shutting down have been unsealed, and Kevin Poulsen, over at Wired, has the details and it's pretty much what most people suspected. The feds got a court order, demanding that Lavabit effectively hand over the keys to everyone's emails. Lavabit's Ladar Levison refused, and he was then threatened with $5,000/day fines, contempt of court charges and possibly more.

Initially, Lavabit was sent a pen register order letting the government know every time Ed Snowden logged in (Snowden's name is redacted, but it's clear that this is about him). Lavabit said that it wouldn't defeat its own encryption system, and the court quickly ordered Lavabit to comply:
By July 9, Lavabit still hadn’t defeated its security for the government, and prosecutors asked for a summons to be served for Lavabit, and founder Ladar Levison, to be held in contempt “for its disobedience and resistance to these lawful orders.”

A week later, prosecutors obtained the search warrant demanding “all information necessary to decrypt communications sent to or from the Lavabit email account [redacted] including encryption keys and SSL keys.”
Once again, Levison refused to reveal the SSL keys, leading to the $5,000 per day fine imposed by Magistrate Judge Theresa Buchanan. The fines began August 6th. Lavabit shut down on August 8th.

Again, something along those lines was what many people had assumed happened, but now it's been confirmed. Kudos to Levison for standing his ground on this. I know that people in our comments like to insist that every company should act this way, but it's not nearly as easy when its your life's work on the line, and you have the entire US government (including huge monetary fines and the possibility of jail time) coming down on you.

Filed Under: doj, ed snowden, email, encryption, fbi, ladar levison, pen register, privacy, ssl, wiretap
Companies: lavabit


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Oct 2013 @ 4:05pm

    If the US Gov got ahold of Lavabit's private SSL key, and Lavabit wasn't using Perfect Forward Secrecy. Then the US Gov would be able to intercept every single Lavabit user's email account password.

    Simply by passively eaves dropping/intercepting all SSL traffic from internet backbone exchanges. With Lavabit's private SSL session key, they could then decrypt the packets and view the plain text email password inside each intercepted packet.

    Please, don't get confused and tell me Lavabit's passwords were hashed before being sent out over the wire. This most likely is not true. At least from what I've read about Lavabit's cryptographic setup, which seemed entirely server-side.

    It's true that Lavabit passwords are stored in hash form on Lavabit's servers themselves. However, the email passwords were most likely transmitted in the clear over the wire (not counting SSL encryption, which would have been useless if US gov has SSL private session key). Then the servers themselves, performed the hashing operation on the clear text password. Verifying if the server computed hash matches the hash value stored on the server's hard drive.

    So yes, passwords were stored in hash form on the servers, but the servers themselves were doing the hashing AFTER receiving the user's plain text password over the wire.

    The only way a client can send a hashed password over the wire, is through client-side software. Hashing can be done using javascript code running inside a client's web browser, but from what I read it doesn't seem like Lavabit was doing this.

    So in order to prevent every single customer's password from being sniffed off the internet backbone. Lavabit would have needed to use SSL with Perfect Forward Secrecy or would need clients to hash their plain text email passwords client-side, before sending them over the wire to the server.

    Even then, all it would take is a National Security Letter and gag order, signed by the Secret Rubber-Stamp Court. To insert a backdoor into the client-side software, and compromise all customers, or select customers, passwords.

    This is why I no longer do business with American IT companies. You never know what the Secret Rubber-Stamp Court is going to do next, and what kind of gag orders they'll deploy to shut everyone up. Or throw them in prison.

    I just wanted to explain how the US Gov could intercept all the passwords, for all of Lavabit's customers, if the US Gov had possession of Lavabit's private SSL key.

    Unless Lavabit was using Perfect Forward Secrecy. In that case, being in possession of the private SSL key would do the US Gov no good. Every single client connecting to Lavabit, would have a uniquely generated private session key. With no way to decrypt all those encrypted sessions. Even if the US Gov did have Lavabit's private SSL key.

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