FBI Crest

A judge ruled today that the government cannot assign gag-orders to national security letters (NSL) — the requests for data and other information that the U.S. government uses to get details on about specific people in the name of national security.

Judge Susan Illston made the call today, saying the gag-orders associated with such letters impede freedom of speech, and that the letters are overall unconstitutional. The judgement came after a telecommunications company challenged one of these orders, saying it wanted to go public with the fact that the government was requesting information. The company, which remains unnamed, was represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

This is a big step for many who think these letters result in too much secrecy around government surveillance and give agencies like the FBI the ability to hide behind a curtain. Companies like Google and Facebook create transparency reports showing government data requests from around the world, but have not been able to include information about national security letters because of their nature.

“The government’s gags have truncated the public debate on these controversial surveillance tools. Our client looks forward to the day when it can publicly discuss its experience,” said Matt Zimmerman, the senior staff attorney for the EFF, in a statement.

The judge is giving the U.S. government a grace-period of 90 days to allow them to appeal the decision.

Many have already taken to Twitter in support of the decision. Researcher Jacob Appelbaum tweeted, “I look forward to the court order that ensures all current and past people targeted by FBI NSLs are notified and encouraged to file suit.”

hat tip Wired; FBI image via cliff1066™/Flickr