On Wednesday, Lavabit, the email provider of Edward Snowden, won a major court battle. As reported in Wired, the provider had refused to give up electronic Secure Socket Layer (SSL) keys to the NSA as it was requested. Instead of complying with the NSA's demands and betraying their users' privacy, Lavabit opted to shut down its services. Though originally details were kept hush-hush, unsealed court documents reveal just how serious the NSA was about the situation. Though Lavabit and its founder, Ladar Levison, have been placed on a gag order restricting any communication about the case and the target in mind, it is known that the target just so happens to be facing the same charges as Edward Snowden, indicating that his account is likely the target.
In the past, President Obama claimed that, "There is no spying on Americans." Yet he still acknowledges that there are "mechanisms" to monitor metadata — the data regarding data, such as when messages are being sent and to where they are being sent to. Now, the president's statement only seems to be contradicted by the NSA and attempt to bully Lavabit into giving up its SSL key.
For those of you that don't know, if the SSL Key were to be given up, then not only would the U.S. government be able to see the information within Edward Snowden's emails (which includes the journalists and activists that he's contacted) but also the content of other Lavabit users' emails. As the noted technology page Quin remarks: "If a government can force a company to turn over the SSL keys, it breaks the trust model for the entire internet."
If the NSA has the legal authority to demand the keys, then it certainly makes the matter of user security on the internet a whole lot more questionable. Web searches, messaging conversations, financial records, and transactions would become a whole lot easier to monitor and record without a warrant. Additionally, given that the NSA's got a little bit of history of abuse when it comes to handling information, allowing analysts to have access to such information further jeopardizes American privacy rights by exposing them to those that might use information for nefarious use.
Out of all the consequences related to this, the effects it will have on journalism are among the most significant. Even before the revelation of the NSA demands towards Lavabit, Alan Rusbridger talked about the implications the Snowden leak made to journalism in his Reddit "Ask Me Anything" (AMA): "Mostly, it’s all bad. I don’t think most news organizations have remotely considered the threat to journalism potentially posed by the methods revealed in the Snowden documents. One basic question: How are we going to have secure communication with sources in future — by phone, by chat, by email, by anything except face to face contact? And, obviously, the use of the Espionage Act — a first world war panic measure passed in 1917 — to clamp down on whistleblowing is really dismaying."
If the NSA gains access to SSL keys, they can clamp down even harder on whistleblowers. Journalists would lose their leaks, or they themselves could be monitored and intimidated with threats of arrest like how Levison was.
Clearly, the NSA has overstepped its boundaries for trying to coerce Lavabit into becoming another component of the American surveillance machine. As it stands, the NSA's unconstitutional activity threatens the freedom of the press to notify the public of government wrongdoing, and it most certainly threatens the Fourth Amendment freedoms guaranteed to Americans.