Wired’s ThreatLevel blog is digging into the story of technology companies pushing back against the government’s use of super-secret National Security Letters (NSLs) to collect information on “persons of interest” to the FBI earlier this year.
According to the Wired account, an unnamed company – very likely in the technology or communications industry- is fighting a government attempt to secretly collect information on its subscribers. The company, like a number before it, has petitioned the FBI over the NSL’s explicit gag order, saying it would like to notify its customer(s) of the request from the FBI.
The federal government, in turn, has taken the issue to court: requesting that the company be forced to follow the FBI’s gag-order, arguing that the contents of the NSL could result in danger to the national security of the United States, as wells as interfere with investigations and/or diplomatic relations. And, on Tuesday, a federal judge in the Eastern District of Virginia stood with the government: ordering the NSL and other supporting documents to be kept under seal.
As Wired reports, the handful of court battles challenging the First Amendment constitutionality of these gag orders have chipped away at some of the harsher terms of NSLs. Despite this, the letters remain a valuable tool for the FBI and other law enforcement to gather all manner of information on U.S. citizens and residents. A report from the Congressional Research Service found that many of the NSLs issued ask companies or service providers to turn over transactional records, subscriber data, phone numbers, email addresses, browsing history, sources and destinations of wire communications (IP addresses). The recipients of NSLs are expected to adhere to a gag order.
Wired claims that NSLs have become commonplace in the post-9/11, Patriot Act America. In 2010 alone, Zetter reports that the FBI sent more than 24,000 such letters to various Internet Service providers and other companies concerning some 14,000 individuals. These letters typically go unreported. The recipients of NSLs quietly provide what is requested, and neither you nor I ever hear a peep about it.
You can read Zetter’s report at Wired.com. That report includes the government’s petition and the court’s response to that petition as well as some excellent context.