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Privacy, Crime and Security Online: FBI and Mystery Surveillance Case

March 19, 2012

Kim Zetter in Wired Magazine:

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.

But this time, the company that received the request pushed back. It told the agency that it wanted to tell its customer that he or she was being targeted, which would give the customer a chance to fight the request in court, as a group of Twitter users did last year when the Justice Department sought their records under a different kind of request. The minor defiance in this latest case was enough to land the NSL request in a federal court docket last Friday, where the government filed a request for a court order to force the company to adhere to the gag order.

In its petition, the government asserted that disclosure of the fact or contents of its NSL “may endanger the national security of the United States” and urged the court to issue an order binding the company to the nondisclosure provision, or be in violation of federal law and face contempt charges.

Although documents in the case are redacted to hide the identity of the company and the target of the investigation, they shed a little light on how NSLs are working these days, after a few reforms. [More]

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