Last year Ladar Levison shut down Lavabit, the email company he’d built over 10 years, rather than obey a government order to compromise the privacy of his users.

Levison has been caught in a legal nightmare for the past nine months, since he refused to hand over the encryption codes used on his system, a small business built with a promise of a secure system for end users.

“Lavabit was established 10 years ago as an alternative to gmail with a focus on privacy,” Levison said in an interview with CBC’s The Lang & O’Leary Exchange.

“We set out with that goal and in the course of building the system that would go on to power the servers, there were a number of headlines discussing the Patriot Act and national security levels and that prompted me to build into the platform an encryption system that would prevent me from accessing the messages of some secure accounts that had enabled the secure storage feature,” he added.

'I simply feel that the freedom to communicate privately, the freedom to associate without suspicion or being accused of criminal behaviour in secret reports is so important to a free and functioning democracy that I’m willing to invest new technology' - Ladar Levison, founder of Lavabit

The ordeal began with a knock on the door by federal agents who had  a court order requiring the installation of surveillance equipment on Lavabit's network .

“I had no choice but to consent to the installation of their device, which would hand the U.S. government access to all of the messages—to and from all of my customers—as they travelled between their email accounts other providers on the internet,” Levison wrote in The Guardian.

“But that wasn't enough. The federal agents then claimed that their court order required me to surrender my company's private encryption keys, and I balked. What they said they needed were customer passwords.”

Long legal battle

Levison told CBC he did not believe it was right to expose all his 410,000 users because the FBI wanted to investigate a handful of his customers.

“I thought if the government came knocking, I could give up the identity of the account holder and they could go directly to that person and collect the data, which is how I believe in a democracy the process should work. You should not be accused of a crime without ever finding out that you were accused,” he said.

Levison was held in contempt of a federal order and faced a court case in which neither he nor his attorneys were given access to background information and in which most of the information was under seal.

He shut down his company, rather than hand over the encryption code. Even today, he is not permitted to say who the FBI was investigating.

“I can’t confirm or deny they were targeting Snowden.  The only thing I’m not allowed to speak about to this day is who and how many targets they were going after in my system,” he said.

Last week, a federal judge unsealed key parts of the record detailing the government’s requests from Lavabit, freeing Levison to talk more openly about what happened.

“With the decision last week, I feel empowered to speak out about the lack of justice that I received as a business and as an individual American,” Levison said.

Levison claimed he is worried his service could be used to hide criminal behaviour, but he believes the government should target its investigation against the individuals it is investigating, rather than all of his customers.

He intends to begin again in a new service with other developers in the coalition called the "Dark Mail Alliance." Levison said he hopes to have a new encrypted email system in testing within a few months and widely available later this year.

Privacy issues paramount

Lavabit encryption was done on the server, using an SSO system to create a secure bridge to the client, but that won’t work if federal agents can demand the code for everyone at once.

“Moving the cryptography down to the client is a new technical challenge and one I’m in the process of solving,” he said.

Levison believes Snowden’s revelations have made people more conscious of the need for privacy and there will be a growing market for really secure email systems.

“I simply feel that the freedom to communicate privately, the freedom to associate without suspicion or being accused of criminal behaviour in secret reports is so important to a free and functioning democracy that I’m willing to invest new technology  to ensure that future generations don’t succumb to biting from the forbidden apple like this one,” he said.