The first rule about National Security Letters (NSL) is you don’t talk about NSLs. If you do the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) gets to put you in a cage. But a resent lawsuit has allowed us to get the first glimpse of an NSL. Specifically what the FBI demanded an Internet service provider (ISP) hand over about one of its customers:
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.
This looks like a fishing expedition more than an investigation. Investigations are supposed to involved people who are suspected of specific crimes and any information demanded from investigators should be specific to those suspected crimes. What the FBI demanded in this case was basically all information the ISP could have about their customer and some information it probably didn’t have (such as a history of online purchases). Such a vast amount of unspecific data would be useful if the FBI wanted to find evidence of a crime and charge the target based on that. Because of the secrecy of NSLs it’s impossible to know the exact motives of the FBI so there’s really nothing stopping it from going on fishing expeditions.
I’d like to see more NSLs disclosed because I’m betting most of them will look more like fishing expeditions than investigations.