Google is resisting a national security letter (NSL) from the FBI demanding that it offer up private information about its users. The petition was filed Friday, two weeks after U.S. District Judge Susan Illston in San Francisco ruled that NSLs are unconstitutional because they “violate the First Amendment and separation of powers principles.”
Bloomberg broke the story and said that Google is the second company to fight back against NSLs. Challenges are rare — of 300,000 government-issued NSLs since 2000, only a handful of companies have resisted. The letters enables intelligence organizations to send secret requests to Web and telecom companies to gather data that is “relevant” to an investigation. They do not need a judge approval and come with a gag order, so people who receive the requests cannot talk about them.
Google filed a petition to “set aside the legal process,” citing a provision that enables judges to modify or deny NSLs that are “unreasonable, oppressive, or otherwise unlawful.” It is unknown why Google received the request, but in a blog post earlier this month, Google’s director of law enforcement and information security Richard Salgado said the company has been “trying to find a way to provide more information about the NSLs we get — particularly as people have voiced concerns about the increase in their use since 9/11,” and would include data about NSLs in their Transparency Report.
While civil rights groups aren’t always thrilled about how Internet companies use their customers’ private data, they are responding positively to Google’s stance against unwarranted government probes. The Electronic Frontier Foundations attorney Matt Zimmerman told Bloomberg “the people who are in the best position to challenge the practice are people like Google. So far no one has really stood up for their users.”
The FBI’s ability to issue NSLs was expanded under the Patriot Act. In 2007, the Justice Department found “serious misuse” of the FBI’s surveillance powers through its unlawful obtainment of information. Illston, Google, and others are taking steps to challenge the NSLs on the basis that they are “unreasonable, oppressive, and otherwise unlawful.”