Google ordered to comply with unconstitutional demands for data

The judge who ruled National Security Letters are unconstitutional says Google must give FBI customer data

Topics: national security letters, FBI, Google, nsls, Susan Illston, Privacy, customer data, ,

The very same judge who this year ruled it unconstitutional for the government to demand, without warrants, that telecom and Internet firms hand over user data has now ruled that Google must comply with government demands to hand over customer data — without a warrant.

In March federal Judge Susan Illston ruled that so-called National Security Letters violated the First Amendment and she also ruled against the FBI’s practice of attaching gag clauses to NSLs, preventing recipients from disclosing their existence or contents. The March ruling was part of a lawsuit brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation on behalf of telecom firm Credo Mobile. Illston’s decision was celebrated by civil liberties advocates as a watershed moment in the battle against the government’s secret procurement of citizens’ private data. At the time, Michael Kieschnick, CEO of Credo Mobile, said, “This decision is notable for its clarity and depth. From this day forward, the U.S. government’s unconstitutional practice of using National Security Letters to obtain private information without court oversight and its denial of the First Amendment rights of National Security Letter recipients have finally been stopped by our courts.”

Illston’s latest ruling over Google, however, has curbed enthusiasm over the implications of her earlier NSL decision. Via CNET:

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CNET has learned that U.S. District Judge Susan Illston in San Francisco rejected Google’s request to modify or throw out 19 so-called National Security Letters, a warrantless electronic data-gathering technique used by the FBI that does not need a judge’s approval. Her ruling came after a pair of top FBI officials, including an assistant director, submitted classified affidavits.

The litigation taking place behind closed doors in Illston’s courtroom — a closed-to-the-public hearing was held on May 10 — could set new ground rules curbing the FBI’s warrantless access to information that Internet and other companies hold on behalf of their users. The FBI issued 192,499 of the demands from 2003 to 2006, and 97 percent of NSLs include a mandatory gag order.

It wasn’t a complete win for the Justice Department, however: Illston all but invited Google to try again, stressing that the company has only raised broad arguments, not ones “specific to the 19 NSLs at issue.”

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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