The Real Story of Lavabit's Founder

SMU alumnus Ladar Levison '03 is profiled in a story about closing down his secure e-mail account service, Lavabit.

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....

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.”