Ladar Levison loves volleyball. The FBI surely knows this fact, because, until recently, Levison ran the email service used by Edward Snowden, the infamous leaker of National Security Agency secrets. In its pursuit of Snowden—a target I’m guessing at, because the FBI won’t acknowledge whose email it wanted to tap before Ladar became an international news story by turning off his servers—the FBI did its homework on the guy with the gun in the tiny Uptown apartment. We’ll get to Ladar’s gun in a bit. First, the volleyball. Whether the FBI knows it or not, volleyball is the key to understanding Ladar.

On a Tuesday evening in late August, Ladar shifts uncomfortably in a plastic chair beside one of the dozen courts at Sandbar Cantina & Grill. Madonna sings, “Gonna give you all my love, boy,” as the sun sets behind downtown Dallas’ glass towers, casting an orange glow on wispy clouds. White sand and palm trees give the place a movie-set feel. Scores of fit twentysomethings in various states of undress, covered with more ink than Lycra, set and spike and slap hands after every point.

Ladar is 32, putting him somewhere north of the average age at Sandbar on this night. He plays in the most competitive division of the Dallas Sport & Social Club. It’s coed, four on four. Most of his opponents played in college; a few played on a pro circuit. Not Ladar. Until he participated in some clinics last summer, he had never had formal instruction in the sport. He learned to play volleyball the same way he learned computer programming and cryptography. He studied it. He read books and watched videos. 

Ladar lifts his black tank top, rips off a Velcro back brace, and trots out to his teammates on the court. Tomorrow, he will get six steroid injections in his back, two on either side of three bulging discs. He has the option to go under anesthesia for the procedure, but he hasn’t yet decided if he’ll take it. He wears a knee brace. Between points, he works his hands in circles to ease pain in his wrists. The knee brace protects a surgically repaired ACL that he tore in January while playing volleyball, but the bad back and the aching wrists are occupational injuries, the result of marathon coding sessions that sometimes have him in a chair, hunched over a keyboard, hammering away for 100 hours a week. 

Ladar’s expression remains unchanged while he plays volleyball: knitted brow, edges of mouth slightly downturned. Even when his side wins a point, he looks like he’s doing differential calculus in his head. His Facebook page is filled with volleyball pictures. In one of them, he stands with his three teammates, who are holding championship t-shirts for the summer 2013 season. They smile broadly. Ladar almost looks pissed, like he stood in line for two hours before posing for a driver’s license photo.

Ron Rodenberg has known Ladar since 2000, when they became friends at SMU. He has seen Ladar’s blank countenance work against him. “Girls hate him,” Rodenberg says. “He’ll make a sarcastic remark, but he forgets to update his facial expression. They think he’s being serious when he’s really joking. They think he’s an asshole and get mad. Girls write him off before they get a chance to know him. It sucks for Ladar, because he’s a good guy.”

Ladar’s team wins its game. He returns to his chair and straps on the back brace. I observe that it seems imprudent to play volleyball when the very next day a doctor will repeatedly stick a 6-inch needle into his spine.

“They only told me not to drink or eat after midnight,” he deadpans. “They didn’t say anything about playing volleyball.”

There it is: Ladar Levison knows the rules. He’ll even follow them. At the same time, though, he is going to do pretty much as he pleases, resulting pain be damned. That’s why Ladar is now unemployed and nearly broke, as he navigates international notoriety and charts a course likely headed to the Supreme Court—all, almost certainly, without aid or comfort of a girlfriend.

levison_government_email_dog During Levison’s marathon programming sessions, his dog Princess was his faithful companion.

Don Levison, Ladar’s father, has to work to recall where the name came from, exactly. It was Ladar’s mother’s grandmother’s maiden name. It’s pronounced la-DAR. Don says he and Linda wanted something unique for their firstborn. They apparently abandoned this strategy with their second child, whom they named Martin. 

“Ladar was always a bright kid,” Don says. “None of what’s going on now is really a surprise to the family. He was a tough one to corral. He didn’t respond to authority well—with us, at school, or anywhere.”

Ladar grew up in the comfortable, fog-shrouded Inner Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco, in a house on a steep street where his parents still live. It’s hard by Mount Sutro’s eucalyptus forest and four blocks south of Golden Gate Park, where young Ladar hung out at the California Academy of Sciences so he could take advantage of a fast internet connection. As a preteen, he spent so much time at the academy that a librarian eventually put him to work building web pages for endangered species. 

This was in the early ’90s, when people still referred to the World Wide Web, and the internet as we know it today was taking shape. By then, Ladar had already made himself a computer expert. He built his own machines when he was 10. He ran a dial-up bulletin-board system. He pored over issues of 2600, an underground technical magazine for phone hackers and computer geeks. Too, Ladar enjoyed self-directed field trips. In 1995, when he was 14, without giving his parents a heads-up, he hopped a bus from San Francisco to Las Vegas to attend the third iteration of DEF CON, now one of the world’s largest annual hacker conventions. 

“This is the type of thing we had to live with on a regular basis,” Don says. “He’d just take off. Of course, if he asked us, we’d say, ‘No, we don’t want you going to Vegas by yourself. It’s a dangerous city.’ But he would ignore that, just do it anyway. You get used to it after a while.” He pauses, reconsiders. “But you don’t get used to it.”

Today, Ladar doesn’t show any remorse for giving his parents grief. “They provided a home,” he says. “They provided meals. But as long as I wasn’t getting in trouble, they stayed out of my way.” He calls his parents workaholics. Don was a financial consultant until Ladar was 10, when he turned his hobby, horology, into a business. He still deals in rare watches and other timepieces. Mom Linda was a travel agent. Ladar says he raised himself from the third or fourth grade on.

“I believe in freedom,” he says. “To me, age is just a number. It shouldn’t determine when somebody is old enough to take control of their own life. For me, it was 14. I understand that most kids aren’t ready to go wandering off by themselves to Vegas when they’re 14. But I’m saying maybe I was.”

Ladar’s relationship with his parents grew more strained when, still in middle school, he began coming home late, around 9 o’clock, without telling them where he’d been. Don and Linda didn’t press the issue, even when the late arrivals continued for months. Ladar’s schoolwork wasn’t slipping, and Don, who once worked in a Haight-Ashbury free clinic, didn’t see any signs of serious trouble. “I could spot drug use and that sort of thing,” he says. “But where he was and what he was doing, he wouldn’t tell us. It was a mystery.”

Turns out, Ladar had a job. 2600 published locations across the country where its readers could periodically meet to talk shop. The San Francisco gatherings took place in the Financial District, where a startup called the World Internet Center played host to the geeks. Ladar got into the habit of hanging around the small company before the 2600 meetings, much as he’d done at the Academy of Sciences. Before long, he was on the payroll, building websites for corporate clients such as Brooks Brothers. 

Father and son disagree about how Ladar’s employment came to an end. Don’s version: he was taking out the trash and found an admission badge to a local tech show. The badge had the company’s name on it, so he called the World Internet Center and learned what his son had been doing after school. The company soon thereafter attracted new investors and was forced to part ways with Ladar because he was too young to be bonded. 

Ladar’s version: his father tailed him to work one day and “freaked out” the owners, who didn’t realize that their young programmer was helping them market men’s slacks without his parents’ blessing.

Tensions finally came to a head when Ladar turned 16. At Thurgood Marshall Academic High School, he’d become involved with the Junior State of America, a national student organization that was launched in California in 1934 by an educator named E.A. Rogers, who, according to the origin story, “believed that one of the most important parts in maintaining a democracy was training its youth in the basics of government.” When Ladar joined JSA, Marshall had about a dozen members; he recruited about 200 more, making his high school a formidable voting bloc at state assemblies. But the leader of this delegation needed wheels to get to debates and other functions.

Don and Linda agreed to help Ladar buy a car, but they wanted him to sign a contract stipulating that he had to get their permission to cross San Francisco’s city limits. Ladar agreed to notify his parents of his intentions, but having to get their permission didn’t seem fair. A stalemate ensued. A few days later, Ladar dropped out of school in protest. 

Weeks went by. Administrators and teachers from Thurgood Marshall called the Levisons, begging for Ladar to return. “He’s one of the leaders of the school,” they said. “We can’t just have him drop out.” To no avail. Don says his son stayed home, fiddling with his computer, “doing this and that.”

Then, when Don was in Europe on a business trip, Linda called her husband with troubling news: “Ladar has disappeared.”

“My mom didn’t notice the collection of camping gear I’d been laying out in the living room,” Ladar says. “I guess my little brother was a little more curious. He told them.”

Ladar had lit out for the territory. That’s all Don and Linda knew. His destination, how long he’d be gone—once again, a mystery.

Using money he’d saved from working at the World Internet Center, Ladar had bought a bus ticket to Campo, California, on the border between California and Mexico. From there, with an 80-pound pack strapped to his back, he started walking north, planning to hike the length of California on the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs along the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, all the way to British Columbia. 

Three weeks into his adventure, though, in mountains north of Los Angeles, Ladar got snowed in by a late-season storm. For a week, he was stuck at a campground, hunkered down in his tent. He grew bored and ate too much, burning through his supplies. At some point, he did the math. Before he’d left San Francisco, he’d mailed provisions to post offices along the trail. Now he saw that the storm and his overeating would make it impossible to reach his next checkpoint. He quit the hike and caught a ride down the mountain with a family that had driven up to play with their kids in the snow. In a tiny town near Los Angeles, Ladar bought a Greyhound ticket back to San Francisco.

He didn’t call ahead. He just showed up one night at the front door, almost a month after he’d disappeared.

Here is what Ladar remembers his mother saying when she saw him: “Oh, you’re back.”

His tech support guy told Ladar to google “Snowden” and “Lavabit.”


Ladar found his way to Dallas through a series of backdoors. After passing the California High School Proficiency Exam, he landed a spot in a summer school program at the University of Hawaii. He so impressed his professors there that they sponsored him for a political science exchange program at Georgetown. He might have stayed in Washington, but Georgetown didn’t have a robust computer science program, which is what led him to SMU—that and the fact that SMU had one of the latest application deadlines in the country. 

Dallas not being San Francisco, Ladar signed up for the school’s summer program to get out of town. It’s held on a campus tucked away in the mountains just outside of Taos, New Mexico. The May term is largely populated by fraternity and sorority types looking for the last three hours they need to graduate. Ladar stood out. 

“He was precocious, brilliant, and, in his own way, completely charming,” says John Lewis, a Harvard-educated English professor who taught humanities in Taos. “The class became very fond of him.” 

It was in Taos that Ladar discovered volleyball. Students are compelled, as a class, to compete in a tournament to build esprit de corps. “Ladar showed up,” Lewis says, “and he was arguably the worst volleyball player that anyone had ever seen.” He returned to Taos for several summers, though, and each summer, surprisingly, he brought with him a better game. 

I proposed a theory to Lewis that might explain why Ladar sometimes forgets to update his face and how he’s able to set his mind on a subject until he has mastered it. Others who know Ladar well think the theory has merit. “I play trivia with a guy on the Asperger spectrum,” Lewis says. “He is a golf pro and pays his rent playing poker online. He can name you the five longest rivers in France, in descending order of length. I’m sure that’s the case with Ladar. The best clue to that is the nature of his writing. I’ve had students so far gone on that spectrum that they don’t write sentences. Ladar writes sentences. But the leaps sometimes between sentence three and sentence four will be very, very big. This would drive a—how should I put it?—more conventional teacher up the wall. But I see it as a sign that there is something here that our system is not prepared to handle well. You make allowances, and you revel in the fact that he probably has, I would guess, a 160 IQ.”

Then again, people with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, are typically uncoordinated, which Ladar is clearly not. And while he is socially awkward, an Asperger trait, he’s also popular. Rodenberg, his college friend, says, “He doesn’t pick up on social cues at all. It’s kind of painful to watch sometimes.” But in the next breath, he tells a story about the time in school that Ladar organized an outing for 40 people to a Mavericks game, hiring an amphibious duck boat for transportation. When the guy walks into Sandbar on a Tuesday night for volleyball, the chef calls through the kitchen window, “Hey, Ladar, what’s up?” After he graduated from SMU, Ladar lived at Mockingbird Station, surrounded by recent grads making their way in the world. Chris Logan is an SMU senior lecturer who lived down the hall. “His apartment was pretty much the hub of social life of the most social floor of that building, even without a television,” Logan says. “Everybody at the end of the night, coming back from the bars, would wind up at his place.”

I put my Asperger theory to Ladar. “Yeah, I mean, I don’t consider myself autistic,” he says. “Part of the reason I’m very good with computers is because I have certain traits that make them predictable to me. Does that make sense?”

So it’s hard to know what’s at work inside that brain. “He is so utterly the person he appears to be,” Lewis says. “It’s just that it takes you years to find out all the things he’s involved in.” Maybe it’s best to leave it at that.

By 2004, he was involved with creating a one-man business that would eventually bring the FBI to his door. That’s one reason his neighbors at Mockingbird Station might have taken to stopping by on the way home from the bars. They knew Ladar would be awake, sucking down Mountain Dew, cranking out computer code.

levison_government_reading_email

As a kid in San Francisco, Ladar had used a bulletin-board system called Nerdshack. In fact, his first email address was a Nerdshack account. The service folded, and a lawyer bought the URL. Ladar knew this fact because, feeling nostalgic about his childhood email address, he would check every six months or so to see who owned Nerdshack.com. In the summer of 2002, the URL became available, and he snapped it up. He sat on it for almost two years before he figured out how to use it. Here was his thinking:

If you wanted to attract an audience and then charge advertisers to reach that audience, you could either spend a lot of money to create content for the audience, or, far more cheaply, you could build a platform and let the audience generate its own content. That’s email. Seeing it as a medium around which to wrap ads might not sound groundbreaking today, but at the time, no one had heard of “user-generated content.” Wikipedia was in its infancy. Gmail didn’t exist until the same year Nerdshack did.

Ladar launched his free email service in April 2004. There were no ads initially, and revenue was nonexistent. Really, it was an expensive hobby. Rodenberg was working at the time for a startup based in downtown Dallas. He let his buddy Ladar use the company’s T1 internet connection for Nerdshack, but it quickly sucked up so much bandwidth that it had to be moved to a separate data center and pay its own way.

Ladar thinks there might be 1,000 people on the planet who share his combination of skill sets. (This assessment does not take into account his proficiency in volleyball or wilderness survival.) There is writing software for an email service, and then there’s running the hardware and the databases that make the service hum. Without venture capital or employees, Ladar did it all himself. And then, a year and a half after he started Nerdshack, he revamped the entire operation. 

In 2006, he rolled out a major reconfiguration of his email service (adding IMAP to his POP service, if you must know). And as long as he was doing that, he figured, he should come up with a snappier name, something with less “nerd” in it. Too, he’d been reading about the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001. Better known by its abbreviated acronym, the Patriot Act had become law in a legislative paroxysm triggered by the 9/11 attacks, greatly expanding the government’s surveillance operations on several fronts. In high school, Ladar had debated the legality of random locker searches as a member of the Junior State of America. He now saw parallels between that situation and this one, where the liberties of the many innocent would be curtailed in pursuit of the guilty few. He also saw a business opportunity. Thus was born Nerdshack’s offspring, Lavabit, an email service for the privacy-minded. 

"That's why they were trying to keep it a secret," Ladar says of the FBI's wire tap.  "They have figured out how to listen to a large number of encrypted conversations in real time."



Remember the DEF CON gig in Vegas that young Ladar snuck off to when he was 14? “I knew those hackers,” he says. “I’d seen them work. I knew a lot of the techniques they used. So when I built my own system, I took a paranoid approach to security. I wanted to keep my friends out.”

As for the Patriot Act and the mother lode of metadata it handed over to the feds, Ladar designed Lavabit to forget it all. “I had been reading the news,” he says. “I knew about national security letters and the position they put internet service providers in. And I was, like, I’m starting with a clean slate. I can choose not to record that information, just not write the code to do it. I won’t collect and log any information that I don’t need.”

Beneath the metadata, though, Ladar’s revamped service also handled the most private of all user information, the email messages themselves. For paying customers, then, Ladar created a system to send and store data so securely that even he couldn’t read his users’ messages. Space and your storyteller’s slippery grasp of hashing algorithms and asymmetric key systems prevent a detailed description of how, precisely, Lavabit worked, but here is all you need to know: [email protected] 

That’s an email address Edward Snowden, the infamous former NSA contractor and information leaker nonpareil, used from January 2010 until August 2013, at which time Ladar shut down his email service in response to an FBI tap designed to capture email information about a target who may or may not have been Snowden. In other words, a guy with a pressing need for privacy and an intimate knowledge of the planet’s best-funded, most sophisticated surveillance operation—that guy used Lavabit.

•••

I might know things I shouldn’t know. Honestly, though, I don’t know with certainty what it is that I should and shouldn’t know. And I don’t know how close I am to the truth with certain guesses that I’ve hazarded. Ladar knows the rules, and he is painfully careful about what he says concerning certain court cases that he can discuss and others that he cannot. I’ve sat on the couch in his Uptown apartment while his tiny Italian greyhound, Princess, has occupied my lap, looking at me like I owe her something. Ladar has asked me at times to turn off my recorder. I, of course, have no recollection of what transpired when said recorder wasn’t recording what was or wasn’t said. 

But here is something I can report: on July 11, when the FBI attempted to serve Ladar with a subpoena, he did not, as an assistant U.S. attorney claimed in a court filing, “exit his apartment from a backdoor, get in his car, and drive away.” Ladar lives on the fifth floor of an apartment building. His “backdoor” opens onto a small patio. Such an exit would be impressive.

Many journalists had assumed that the FBI (or some combination of government initialisms) had taken an interest in Ladar only after Snowden very publicly used a Lavabit address. But before the attempted subpoena, he had been in contact with federal authorities regarding an ongoing criminal investigation—the one whose target the FBI will not acknowledge—for a couple of weeks. And he had cooperated with government warrants previously. In June, Ladar provided the FBI with information on a user for a child pornography case in Maryland.  

At the time, about 400,000 subscribers were using the service, with 10,000 or so paying for adless email and encrypted storage. The company was generating enough cash that Ladar had been able to scale back his outside consulting projects and hire an overseas part-time tech support guy. 

An aside: Ladar did once have a girlfriend. She was an electrical engineer for Raytheon, and they dated for five years. Here’s how he fit Lavabit into their relationship: “I’d work solid for five days, basically sleep two hours a night, then go over to my girlfriend’s place, where I’d sleep for two days straight, then go back and do the cycle all over again.”

The business eventually won out over the girlfriend. Rodenberg recalls the end: “She really liked Ladar. He should not have let that go. He’s not going to find another girl that puts up with his crap as well as she did. I still remember this exchange. He said, ‘She wants to spend all this time with me.’ I’m like, ‘Dude, that is called having a girlfriend. That is not an outrageous request.’ I don’t remember exactly how it happened. A few months later, they broke up, and he was super depressed.”

But by last summer, the backbreaking work and the sacrifice were paying off. Lavabit was chugging along. The service typically gained about 150 new accounts every day. Then, on July 12, just a day after the FBI knocked on Ladar’s door, everything changed. Lavabit was hit with about 5,000 new registrations. Ladar thought he was under attack from spammers registering zombie accounts. His tech support guy told Ladar to google “Snowden” and “Lavabit.” 

July 12 was the day that Snowden used his Lavabit address to call a press conference at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, where he made his bid for whistleblower asylum. Among the hundreds of stories about Lavabit bouncing around the internet that day, Yahoo News said Snowden’s use of the service was “an incredible brand endorsement for any pro-privacy, anti-government-snooping organization out there.” Lavabit generated about $12,000 in the month after Snowden’s press conference, more than double its pre-Snowden monthly revenue.

Imagine having invented a putter and then watching Tiger Woods use it to win the Masters. Lavabit, as Yahoo News noted, had received a lucrative endorsement, and the service was taking off. Ladar’s first thought when he saw the spike in registrations was that he needed to get some extra servers online. 

By August 8, his thinking had changed. Ladar shut down Lavabit, posting a message to the site that brought him even more attention than had Snowden’s implicit endorsement. Ladar’s note to his users read, in part:

“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. After significant soul searching, I have decided to suspend operations. I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision. I cannot.”

On October 2, a raft of court documents was unsealed, and we now know why Ladar’s explanation for taking Lavabit offline was so oblique. (The order to unseal the documents is still under seal, making it unclear why they were unsealed, but it seems that when Ladar’s case made its way up the chain, an appellate court judge decided he’d had enough of the secrecy.) As the FBI sought to tap Lavabit in a novel way, an effort that began in June, Ladar was under a gag order to remain silent about the process, including but not limited to revealing information about the target(s) of the eavesdropping (again, one of which everyone has assumed, with good reason, to be Snowden). 

Here’s something else I think I can report: agents of the federal government have broken the internet’s standard form of encryption. This is where the gun comes into play.

Most encrypted online communication uses a protocol called secure sockets layer, or SSL. To oversimplify, SSL protected the emails, passwords, and other information sent to and from Lavabit’s servers. To do this, a user employed a public key to encrypt an email that could then only be decrypted with a corresponding private key, which in theory would only be known by the intended recipient. Each connection was protected by a third key, called a session key. 

The FBI needed two things: a warrant to see metadata (the recipient of an email and time it was sent, for example, but not the content of the email) and a method to decrypt the SSL connections. The warrant was easy. The ability to decrypt SSL connections was problematic.

Normally, an email service logs metadata, and those logs can be monitored by the government. But Lavabit wasn’t a normal email service. Ladar engineered it so that such metadata were never kept on his servers. So when the feds said they wanted to monitor the email of the target(s) in real time, and when they asked for Lavabit’s private SSL master key to do so, Ladar deduced that they’d come up with a way to figure out those third keys, the session keys. Until now, uncovering a session key was thought to be theoretically possible but also so difficult that it would be impractical. Ladar realized the FBI had been able to “reduce” the problem such that it had the ability to uncover session keys in real time. This meant that once they had access to the private SSL keys, they would be able to monitor everyone who was accessing Lavabit and examine everything being sent to and from its servers.  

“Nobody knows that capability exists,” Ladar says. He admits he’s just guessing, but then, he would be in a better position than anyone on the planet to guess about such a thing. “That’s why they were trying to keep it secret. They have figured out how to listen to a large number of encrypted conversations in real time. They’ve probably uncovered a weakness in the SSL algorithm. The feeling I got is that they can do it with a single device that has specialized hardware inside it.”

When the FBI asked for Lavabit’s private SSL keys, Ladar and his lawyer argued that turning them over would ruin his business and that such access would violate the privacy of all his customers by giving the feds access not just to the target(s) singled out by a warrant but also to the communications of all 400,000 of Lavabit’s users. Ladar lost this argument. After getting hit with a $10,000 contempt-of-court fine, he finally turned over Lavabit’s SSL keys. But he did it in typical Ladar fashion. 

First, he connected a 4-terabyte hard drive to his servers and dumped all his users’ stored encrypted emails onto it, about 40 million messages. That drive now waits in “an undisclosed location” for Ladar to prevail in court and restart Lavabit. 

Second, he chose a clever way to comply with the judge’s order. Lavabit used 2,048-bit encryption keys that each comprised 512 random characters. Rather than hand them over in a usable digital format, Ladar printed the keys in 4-point type, which required 11 pages. Because the FBI knows that Ladar owns a gun, it didn’t want to send an agent to his apartment to collect the SSL keys. Recall, too, that Ladar owns a vicious Italian greyhound.  

•••

Ladar Levison is riding shotgun in my car, with Princess perched in his lap, as we barrel westward on I-30. He’s talking on his phone to a producer from CBS News in New York City. He has always been famous, to a degree. It’s the alliteration. And because the first name suggests a large antenna mounted on a military vehicle. He still encounters old SMU classmates who will greet him: “Ladar!” Of course, their poli-sci class had 50 students in it, and that was 10 years ago, so Ladar can rarely recall Jim’s name. The name is a blessing and a curse.

Now he gets approached on an entirely different level. I watched him give a speech in September at Ron Paul’s Liberty Political Action Conference, at a Marriott conference center in Northern Virginia. He concluded by saying, “It’s the job of every patriot to defend his country from his government. I don’t see myself as a hero. I just see myself as an American.” A few hundred people leapt to their feet with applause. Outside the ballroom, people took selfies with Ladar. 

“This whole thing has forced me to work on my people skills,” he said. “For the past 10 years, my best friend has been a computer.”

Bruce Fein was in the audience. He’s a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who has testified before Congress literally more times than he can count, including at Justice Antonin Scalia’s confirmation hearing. Until recently, Fein represented Edward Snowden’s father. He told me that he thinks Ladar’s case is probably headed to the Supreme Court. “It is to the Fourth Amendment what Brown v. Board of Education was to the equal protection clause. It draws the line,” Fein said. “He has decided to act as the Paul Revere, if you will, of the entire internet community.”

But right now Paul Revere has a plane to catch. After CBS on October 4 and a busy schedule of other interviews in New York, he’ll head to Arizona to give a talk at another conference, and then fly to Brussels for a European Union hearing. He’s not even sure what that’s about. Without a job or a business to run, these days he just goes where his legal team sends him. 

There’s just one more thing I need to clarify before I put him and Princess on a plane. It concerns the FISA court.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was passed in 1978. The Patriot Act amended FISA to give the NSA broader powers to snoop on “United States persons” in an effort to combat terrorism. Documents leaked by Snowden reveal that the NSA has essentially tapped the entire planet, possibly using quantum computers to analyze the data it collects. There is a FISA court, whose proceedings are secret. The Latin for this special sort of proceeding is ex parte,meaning only one side gets to present its argument to a judge. That side is the government’s. 

Weaving in and out of traffic, rushing to get Ladar to his gate on time, I ask him if he has ever received a FISA warrant to tap Lavabit. 

“I can’t confirm or deny that, can I?” he says. “I wanted to contest a request for the SSL keys in a federal district court, not the FISA court. I can still say which court I’d rather have a hearing in.”

He says this with a rare, fleeting smile on his face. As I say, Princess is sitting in his lap. My guess is that’s why Ladar is smiling. He loves that dog. 

Write to [email protected].