Recently Google provided information about how frequently it has received warrantless requests for information from the FBI. Those of us who think personal privacy still has value in our increasingly monitored world should hope that Google’s approach to disclosure is followed by other companies.
The FBI requests are called National Security Letters. For some time, FBI headquarters had been permitted to use NSLs in connection with espionage investigations. In 2001, the Patriot Act broadened the circumstances in which NSLs may be used, and also authorized FBI offices around the country to issue NSLs. Under current procedures, the FBI may issue NSLs to obtain name, address, length of service, and other information about computer users. No court approval or warrant is necessary. Companies receiving the FBI requests aren’t permitted to disclose the existence of the requests, although the recipient can challenge the NSLs in court.
Because of the prohibition on disclosure, Google could provide only summary numerical information about NSLs. The company said that, in 2012, it had received between 0 and 999 requests for information targeting between 1,000 and 1,999 accounts. That doesn’t sound too bad — but, of course, Google is only one of many companies that store, move, and organize data on the internet. Until we know more about the prevalence of NSLs, we can’t assess whether the FBI is appropriately using its authority to issue them.
We should all applaud Google’s effort to provide some information about NSLs and encourage other companies to do likewise. Whether you think NSLs are a necessary tool in the fight against terrorism or an ill-conceived exception to the warrant requirement, the American public should at least be advised about how frequently NSLs are used, and under what circumstances. Otherwise, how are informed citizens supposed to voice their views on the law to their elected representatives — and isn’t that how democracies are supposed to work?