Challenge to Court Order for Encryption Key, In Re: Grand Jury Proceedings (amicus curiae)

Lavabit was a highly secure email service. Law enforcement agents conducting a criminal investigation of one of Lavabit’s customers (widely believed to be Edward Snowden) demanded that the company turn over its private encryption keys so that the government could monitor information associated with the suspect’s communications. Lavabit balked at the demand, pointing out that the keys protected all of the company’s customers, not just the target of the government’s investigation. But when the district court held Lavabit in contempt for refusing to give up its encryption keys and imposed a $5,000-a-day fine until the company complied, Lavabit had no choice but to turn the keys over to the government. The company’s founder closed the company shortly thereafter, believing that Lavabit could not hold itself out as operating a secure email service after its private keys had been divulged. On October 24, 2013, we filed an amicus brief in the Fourth Circuit arguing that the court did not have the authority to require Lavabit to turn over its encryption keys so that it could monitor the email of one suspect. The court heard oral arguments on January 28, 2014. On April 16, 2014, the court ruled in favor of the government, holding that the main issues in the case had not been preserved.


Alexander A. Abdo, Brian M. Hauss, Catherine Crump, Nathan F. Wessler, Ben Wizner, ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project; Rebecca Glenberg, ACLU of Virginia

Date filed

October 24, 2013


U.S. Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit