David Kravets/ArsTechnica: The National Security Letter Spy Tool Has Been Uncloaked, And It’s Bad

Re-posted (in excerpt), with thanks, from ArsTechnica.com, please visit there for the full article by journalist David Kravets. Thanks to Michael Krieger of Liberty Blitzkrieg, for pointing to this post.

Thanks also to Nicholas Merrill, president of Calyx Internet Access, who challenged the FBI’s gag order on a National Security Letter he was served for a client’s records, and endured a 11-year legal saga in a First Amendment lawsuit (more on this from Wikipedia) before a judge ordered that the FBI’s specific informational demands be revealed.

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Excerpt, from start of article:

The National Security Letter (NSL) is a potent surveillance tool that allows the government to acquire a wide swath of private information—all without a warrant. Federal investigators issue tens of thousands of them each year to banks, ISPs, car dealers, insurance companies, doctors, and you name it. The letters don’t need a judge’s signature and come with a gag to the recipient, forbidding the disclosure of the NSL to the public or the target.

For the first time, as part of a First Amendment lawsuit, a federal judge ordered the release of what the FBI was seeking from a small ISP as part of an NSL. Among other things, the FBI was demanding a target’s complete Web browsing history, IP addresses of everyone a person has corresponded with, and records of all online purchases, according to a court document unveiled Monday. All that’s required is an agent’s signature denoting that the information is relevant to an investigation.

“The FBI has interpreted its NSL authority to encompass the websites we read, the Web searches we conduct, the people we contact, and the places we go. This kind of data reveals the most intimate details of our lives, including our political activities, religious affiliations, private relationships, and even our private thoughts and beliefs,” said Nicholas Merrill, who was president of Calyx Internet Access innicholasmerrill New York when he received the NSL targeting one of his customers in 2004.

The FBI subsequently dropped demands for the information on one of Merrill’s customers, but he fought the gag order in what turned out to be an 11-year legal odyssey just to expose what the FBI was seeking. He declined to reveal the FBI’s target.

The NSL got a major boost in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks, as it became part of the USA Patriot Act. Between 2003 and 2005, the FBI issued 143,074 NSLs according to a Justice Department inspector general report.

Please continue reading at ArsTechnica.

Related:

Compilation of statistics, history, and information on National Security Letters at EPIC–Electronic Privacy Information Center.

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