The FBI used National Security Letters -- a form of surveillance that privacy watchdogs call “frightening and invasive” -- to surreptitiously seek information on Google users, the web giant has just revealed.
Google’s disclosure is “an unprecedented win for transparency,” privacy experts said Wednesday. But it’s just one small step forward.
“Serious concerns and questions remain about the use of NSLs,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Dan Auerbach and Eva Galperin wrote. For one thing, the agency issued 16,511 National Security Letters in 2011, the last year for which data was available. But Google was gagged from saying just how many letters it received -- leaving key questions unanswered.
“The terrorists apparently would win if Google told you the exact number of times the Federal Bureau of Investigation invoked a secret process to extract data about the media giant’s customers,” Wired’s David Kravets wrote. He described the FBI's use of NSLs as a way of "secretly spying" on Google's customers.
National Security Letters are a means for the FBI to obtain information on people from telecommunications companies, authorized by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) and expanded under the Patriot Act. It lets the agency seek information on a subscriber to a wire or electronic communications service, although not things like the content of their emails or search queries, Google said.
“Of all the dangerous government surveillance powers that were expanded by the USA PATRIOT Act, the National Security Letter (NSL) power … is one of the most frightening and invasive,” the EFF wrote. “These letters … allow the FBI to secretly demand data about ordinary American citizens' private communications and Internet activity without any meaningful oversight or prior judicial review.”
No other technology company presently disclose such basic information about government requests, experts noted.