Friday, March 1, 2024 Mar 1, 2024
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The Real Story of Lavabit’s Founder

Ladar Levison was Edward Snowden's email provider, until the FBI came calling. For the first time, he talks about his odd childhood and the new snooping capability he thinks the feds have developed.
By Tim Rogers |

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.

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?”


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