Civil liberties groups back secure email service in surveillance case

The federal government is violating the Fourth Amendment by requiring secure email service Lavabit to surrender its encryption key, two civil liberties groups said in briefs to the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals this week.

Lavabit – the email service used by Edward Snowden, who leaked documents about U.S. surveillance programs – has come under legal fire for refusing to turn over the encryption key that would allow the U.S. government access users’ secured communications.

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Though the target of the government’s investigation into a single Lavabit user has not been named, many believe the government was attempting to access Snowden’s emails.

Ultimately Lavabit shuttered its services earlier this year when it was forced to turn over the encryption key and could no longer guarantee secure communications to its users.

The request for the encryption key was a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches, the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said in their briefs.

"Obtaining a warrant for a service's private key is no different than obtaining a warrant to search all the houses in a city to find the papers of one suspect," EFF Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch said in a statement.

"This case represents an unprecedented use of subpoena power, with the government claiming it can compel a disclosure that would, in one fell swoop, expose the communications of every single one of Lavabit's users to government scrutiny."

Service providers like Lavabit are only required to do so much to assist government investigations, the ACLU wrote in its brief.

Unlike telephone companies, “Congress has explicitly refrained from requiring electronic communication service providers like Lavabit to design their services in a way that enables the government to easily access their users’ data,” the group wrote.