Tech Company Defies FBI in Mystery Surveillance Case
Sometime earlier this year, a provider of communication services in the United States - perhaps a phone company, perhaps Twitter - got a letter from the FBI demanding it turn over information on one, or possibly even hundreds, of its customers. The letter instructed the company to never disclose the existence of the demand to anyone - in particular, the target of the investigation.
This sort of letter is not uncommon post-9/11 and with the passage of the U.S. Patriot Act, which gave the FBI increased authority to issue so-called National Security Letters (NSLs). In 2010, the FBI sent more than 24,000 NSLs to ISPs and other companies, seeking information on more than 14,000 individuals in the U.S.
The public heard about none of these letters.
The inspector general found that the FBI evaded limits on (and sometimes illegally issued) NSLs to obtain phone, e-mail and financial information on American citizens, and that it had also underreported the use of NSLs to Congress. In 2006 alone, the FBI issued more than 49,000 NSLs, but that number dropped dramatically to 16,804 in 2007 following the inspector general’s report. After the Justice Department claimed it instituted reforms to address the legal lapses, the number of NSLs issued increased to 24,744 in 2008. In 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the FBI issued 24,287 NSLs.
Two cases helped shine a light on the real-world uses of NSLs. In 2007 the Internet Archive challenged an NSL it received seeking information about one of the online library’s registered users. The Electronic Frontier Foundation challenged the constitutionality of the NSL, which ultimately resulted in the FBI rescinding the NSL and agreeing to unseal the records in the court battle. It was the first extensive look the public got at the nature of the NSL process.