LinkedIn Appeals for National Security Letter Transparency, Calls Ban ‘Unconstitutional’

LinkedIn joined other Internet companies in publicly declaring their desire to publish data on the number of National Security Letters it receives from the federal government.

LinkedIn on Tuesday joined the fray of Internet companies requesting permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to publish data on the number of National Security Letters it receives.

Unlike Google, Microsoft and others that have petitioned the FISA court to lift its ban on the sharing of NSL data, LinkedIn does not offer Web-based email or storage service for its members and therefore does not store the same types of data on individuals that might interest the National Security Agency and the FBI. However, with the NSA’s stated ability and desire to map phone call metadata in order to connect and locate individuals who could be a threat to national security, LinkedIn’s similar mapping between its 238 million members’ professional careers could be of interest to the court.

In the meantime, the company was busy filing not only an amicus brief with a California appeals court, but also fired off letters to the FISA court, FBI, and its users explaining its desire for transparency, a public hearing with the FISA court, and calling the ban on sharing NSL data unconstitutional.

Companies and individuals are barred by the FBI from confirming they’ve even received a National Security Letter, much less publicly revealing in aggregate how many requests have been made by the government. LinkedIn, similarly to Google and others in past motions, said the ban violates the company’s First Amendment rights to free speech and hinders their ability to maintain a trustworthy relationship with users with regard to government access to their data. Requests for additional transparency bubbled to the surface shortly after the Snowden documents were leaked exposing the depths of surveillance activity carried out by the NSA and the access the spy agency has to individuals’ data stored by Internet companies.

“This secretive environment and the information the government has shrouded also invites unfounded speculation that American Internet companies are part of the expansive government surveillance activities,” LinkedIn wrote in its amicus brief. “Such public misperception can have devastating effects on those companies’ reputations and can eviscerate the trust and transparency that they have worked so hard to develop with their users.”

The government, meanwhile, has proposed that companies be allowed to report NSL numbers in ranges of 0-1,000. LinkedIn fought back, stating that approach would not work for smaller companies that would not potentially receive thousands of requests for NSLs because it would create the impression that the number of NSLs would be more substantial than reality. It offered the example where a company could receive 10 requests but would be able to report that number only within a range of 0-1,000.

“The information permitted under these measures would be misleading, would distort the public’s understanding of the actual number of government requests received, would reduce rather than increase transparency, and would deplete rather than enhance trust in the companies, the industry and the government,” LinkedIn wrote.

LinkedIn also called upon the FISA court to uphold a district court ruling calling the ban on revealing NSL data unconstitutional. In two cases, single individuals in New York and Northern California were granted permission to publicly say they were handed National Security Letters.

“When one individual receives a National Security Letter, they have a First Amendment right to speak about that fact under certain conditions,” said Brett Max Kaufman, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “At a global level, it’s very clear that LinkedIn has a parallel interest in being able to speak about an entire group of individuals whose information is affected by these requests.”

LinkedIn, meanwhile, published a transparency report yesterday, reporting that it fielded 83 government requests for member data in the first half of 2013, 70 of those from the United States impacting 84 member accounts. LinkedIn reported that it provided data in 57 percent of those requests and 49 percent overall. Again, the number of NSL requests are not included in those totals.

“I believe these companies are absolutely sincere with these filings. LinkedIn has likely been involved in contentious negotiations with the government over the summer,” Kaufman said. “I think we can take their word for it that they are committed to their principles and feel strongly as a company that releasing this information would not damage national security.”

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