Google Customer Data: FBI Demands Information From Company Without a Warrant

A U.S. judge has ordered internet giant Google to comply with the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) demand for customer data. District court judge Susan Illston rejected Google's argument that the so-called National Security Letters (NSLs), used by government agencies to obtain information on individuals without a warrant, were unconstitutional and unnecessary. This is despite Illston having previously ruled in a separate case brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in March that the NSLs were unconstitutional and violated the right to free speech

While civil liberties groups praised Illston's decision back in March for its "notable for its clarity and depth" and saw it as signalling an end to the government practice of using NSLs, her latest ruling shows that this issue is clearly not over. 

The ruling comes amid reports that President Obama will nominate former Bush official James Comey for the position of FBI director. Although Comey pushed back against warrantless surveillance under Bush, he only did so to a limited extent and his potential nomination highlights the continuance under Obama of an authoritarian government approach to issues such as surveillance, secrecy, and due process.  

As the Associated Press points out, the letters are sent by the FBI to "banks, telecommunication companies and other businesses [and are] an outgrowth of the USA Patriot Act passed after the Sept. 11 attacks, are supposed to be used exclusively for national security purposes and are sent without judicial review. Recipients are barred from disclosing anything about them." The FBI sent out more than 16,000 of the letters last year, demanding information on more than 7,000 Americans.

Illston put her previous ruling in favor of the EFF back in March on hold pending a government appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. And while she ruled against Google in her latest decision, she also put that ruling on hold until the 9th Circuit makes its decision. Until then, however, she said that Google will have to comply with the demands for customer data contained in 19 letters in question sent to it by the FBI. Google was challenging the validity of the letters, but after receiving sworn-testimony from two FBI officials, Illston ruled that 17 of the letters were issued properly (she said she wanted more information on the remaining two). 

Kurt Opsah, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, reacted to the latest decision, saying that he was "disappointed that the same judge who declared these letters unconstitutional is now requiring compliance with them." Google has the option to appeal the ruling but the company has declined to make a comment.

Although it is unclear what information the FBI was seeking or who it was targeting, the secrecy of the whole process further highlights worrying issues around the extensive use of "national security" to justify government policies over the last 12 years or so. The term is so vague and potentially broadly interpreted that the government can seemingly use it to justify any erosion of civil liberties these days.