U.S. District Judge Susan Illston has ruled that Google Inc. must comply with the FBI’s warrantless demands for customer data, rejecting the company’s argument that the government’s practice of issuing so-called national security letters to telecommunication companies, Internet service providers, banks and others was unconstitutional and unnecessary.
FBI counter-terrorism agents began issuing the secret letters, which do not require a judge’s approval, after Congress passed the USA Patriot Act in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The letters are used to collect unlimited pieces of sensitive, private information, such as financial and phone records and have prompted complaints of government privacy violations in the so-called name of national security. If you recall, the Obama reelection campaign utilized such data in their unprecedented and extremely successful efforts to micro-target voters.
In a ruling written May 20 and obtained Friday, Judge Illston ordered Google to comply with the FBI’s demands.
But she put her ruling on hold until the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could decide the matter. Until then, the Mountain View, California-based company must comply with the letters unless it shows the FBI did not follow proper procedures in making its demands for customer data in the 19 letters Google is challenging.
After receiving sworn statements from two top-ranking FBI officials, Judge Illston was satisfied that 17 of the 19 letters were issued properly. She needed more information on two other letters.
It was unclear from the judge’s ruling what type of information the government sought to obtain with the letters, and it was also unclear who the government was targeting.
The decision comes several months after she ruled prior in a separate case brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation over the same letters. She ruled in March that the FBI’s demand that recipients refrain from telling anyone – including customers – that they had received the letters was a violation of First Amendment free speech rights.
Kurt Opsah, an attorney with the foundation, said it could be many more months before the appeals court rules on the constitutionality of the letters in the Google case. He said on Friday:
We are disappointed that the same judge who declared these letters unconstitutional is now requiring compliance with them.
Illston’s May 20 ruling omits any reference to Google or how the proceedings had been closed to the public. The judge, however, said “the petitioner” was involved in a similar case filed on April 22 in New York federal court.
Public records show that on the very same day, the federal government filed a “petition to enforce National Security Letter” against Google after the company declined to cooperate with government demands.
Google still has the legal option to appeal Illston’s decision, but offered no comment as to the company’s future plans.
In 2007, the Justice Department’s inspector general found widespread violations in the FBI’s use of these letters, including demands without proper authorization and information obtained in non-emergency circumstances. The FBI has supposedly tightened oversight of the system.
The FBI made 16,511 national security letter requests for information regarding 7,201 people in 2011, the latest data available.