A federal appeals court on Wednesday upheld a contempt of court ruling against Lavabit – the secure email service that was used by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Lavabit was found in contempt of court last year after refusing to comply with an FBI order to hand over encryption keys in an investigation thought to relate to Edward Snowden.
After that ruling, Lavabit’s owner Ladar Levison closed down the service.
Ladar Levison could appeal against this latest decision in a higher court.
“I haven’t read the court’s opinion, nor sought advice from lawyers on any possible legal strategy, so that is still pending,” he told news website Ars Technica.
Lavabit was found in contempt of court last year after refusing to comply with an FBI order to hand over encryption keys in an investigation thought to relate to Edward Snowden
Last June, the US government obtained a court order for Lavabit’s encryption keys in order to allow investigators to track the email traffic of an unnamed target, thought to be Edward Snowden, who had an email account with the service.
Just hours before a deadline to hand over the information expired, Ladar Levison provided the FBI with an 11-page printout listing the keys in tiny type, in effect making them unusable.
The court found Ladar Levison in contempt and the government told Lavabit to provide the keys in an acceptable industry standard electronic format within three days.
Ladar Levison did provide the information to the FBI by the new deadline but appealed against the court’s contempt ruling.
A judge sitting on the case at the appeals court upheld the ruling as he said Ladar Levison had never challenged the court order in the lower court.
Ladar Levison’s lawyer said he was disappointed with the ruling but said the court’s decision was to do with procedural issues and not the merits of the case.
“The court did not say the government’s actions in this case were legal,” said Ian Samuel.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has been supportive of Ladar Levison, said in a statement: “We believe it’s clear that there are limits on the government’s power to coerce innocent service providers into its surveillance activities.”
Lavabit, an encrypted email service thought to have been used by Edward Snowden, has abruptly shut down.
Ladar Levison, owner of the Texas-based Lavabit service, said legal reasons prevented him explaining his decision.
He said he would rather suspend his business than become complicit in “crimes against the American people”.
Correspondents say Lavabit appears to have been in a legal battle to stop US officials accessing customer details.
Edward Snowden, a 30-year-old former CIA contractor, has admitted leaking information about US surveillance programmes to the media.
Edward Snowden is believed to have been using the Lavabit service after fleeing the US
He fled the US – where he now faces espionage charges – and has been granted temporary asylum in Russia.
Observers say Lavabit was put in the spotlight following reports that Edward Snowden was using the service while holed-up in Moscow airport.
“I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people, or walk away from nearly 10 years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit,” Ladar Levison wrote in a letter posted on the Lavabit website.
He said he had decided to “suspend operations” but was barred from discussing the events over the past six weeks that led to his decision.
“This experience has taught me one very important lesson: without congressional action or a strong judicial precedent, I would strongly recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States,” Ladar Levison wrote.
The US Department of Justice has so far not commented.
Edward Snowden spent about a month in a transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport as the US pressured other countries to deny him asylum.
On August 1st, Edward Snowden left the airport after the Russian government said it would grant him asylum there for a year.
Moscow’s decision prompted President Barack Obama to scrap a planned meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.