Google Fights to Keep User Info Private Against National Security Letters

Josh WolfordIT Management

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Since 9/11 and the implementation of the Patriot Act, the FBI's use of National Security Letters to obtain info has skyrocketed.

National Security Letters (NSL) are a form of a demand letter that are used by the U.S. Government (mostly the FBI) to extract information from an organization in the name of national security. The kind of info requested in NSLs includes stuff like transactions, phone numbers, and email addresses.

And it shouldn't surprise you that a company like Google finds itself at the receiving end of many of these letters.

But according to a report, Google is fighting back against them in court.

Last week, Google filed papers in the case In Re Google Inc. Petition to set aside Legal Process. Although most of the documents are sealed, Bloomberg reports that Google is in fact challenging Section 2709 of Titles 18, which deals with National Security Letters. Section 2079 gives the FBI the ability to issue NSLs that force services like Google to give up user info that "relevant to an investigation" into national security issues.

The law also allows NSLs to come complete with gag orders, barring the recipients from even discussing them with their users.

The case is in front of US District Judge Susan Illston, who just a couple of weeks ago ruled NSLs unconstitutional.

Last month, Google began to include National Security Letter requests (demands?) in its Transparency Report, which also discloses users data requests made by governments using search warrants and subpoenas, as well as content removal requests. The NSL info is vague - Google reported somewhere between 0 and 999 NSLs affecting between 1000 and 1999 users last year. This info is vague because of the laws concerning NSLs and their inherent secrecy.

Google said that they worked with the FBI to lossen this secrecy ever so slightly to allow for their inclusion in the Transparency Report.

"You’ll notice that we’re reporting numerical ranges rather than exact numbers. This is to address concerns raised by the FBI, Justice Department and other agencies that releasing exact numbers might reveal information about investigations," said Google.

But it appears that Google is now actually fighting the NSLs in court.

“The people who are in the best position to challenge the practice are people like Google,” said EFF attorney Matt Zimmerman. "So far no one has really stood up for their users."

Google has declined to comment.

Josh Wolford
Josh Wolford is a writer for WebProNews. He likes beer, Japanese food, and movies that make him feel weird afterward. Mostly beer. Follow him on Twitter: @joshgwolf Instagram: @joshgwolf Google+: Joshua Wolford StumbleUpon: joshgwolf