After a legal battle that played out over eleven years, Internet Service Provider (ISP) Nicholas Merrill can finally reveal the details of a United States National Security Letter that was sent to him years ago.
The broad, general details of the letter have been known for a while, but a recent federal court order basically listed the personal information that the government told Merrill to turn over regarding his customers.
The FBI decided not to appeal the court decision. This means that Merrill can release the letter to the public which was seeking personal information that the United States government believes it has a right to without first securing a warrant.
Merrill celebrated his victory on Twitter, stating that, “Today my National Security Letter gag order is gone after over 11 years of litigation. I hope others who get NSLs find ways to challenge them.” He added that, “I risked my freedom to speak out about my National Security Letter because I feel strongly about the need to protect privacy and free speech.”
As the gag order baked into the National Security Letter was officially lifted, an unredacted version of a decision by Judge Victor Marrero was simultaneously published, listing all of the details the FBI requested that Calyx Internet Access hand over in 2004.
It is the first time that a National Security Letter gag order was lifted. Although the FBI does not provide exact statistics, there are about 10,000 letters sent each year.
Judge Marrero’s decision was carefully and delicately worded to essentially reveal the types of details the FBI had requested. But, the unredacted version makes the details explicit: “an individual’s complete web browsing history; the IP addresses of everyone a person has corresponded with; and records of all online purchases.”
The FBI also argues that it has the authority to request mobile phone location data. According to federal authorities, they have stopped asking for that data when sending National Security Letters but that does not mean the FBI does not believe it has the authority to do so under its interpretation of federal law.
When Merrill received his National Security Letter in 2004, he refused to turn over the sought-after information, and sued both the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI to lift the gag order so that he could tell the public what the agency had demanded. In his lawsuit, he claimed the gag order violated his First Amendment rights.
That was the beginning of an 11-year court battle.
Merrill happily proffered that, “For more than a decade, the FBI has been demanding extremely sensitive personal information about private citizens just by issuing letters to online companies like mine.”
He further added that, “The FBI has interpreted its NSL authority to encompass the websites we read, the web searches we conduct, the people we contact, and the places we go. This kind of data reveals the most intimate details of our lives, including our political activities, religious affiliations, private relationships, and even our private thoughts and beliefs.”