Federal Appeals Court Begins Hearing Arguments on Government Surveillance Gag Order

Wednesday morning the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco will hear arguments from the U.S. government regarding a lower courts ruling on the controversial National Security Letters (NSLs).

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is asking the appeals court to uphold a ruling that found the NSL provision of the Patriot Act to be unconstitutional. NSLs are a tool used by the government to force telecommunication companies to give customer information without the use of a warrant from a judge. The NSLs are typically issued by the FBI to gather information from companies when related to national-security investigations. This information can include customer names, addresses, phone and internet records, and banking and credit statements.

The most contentious part of the tool is the use of gag orders. When a credit reporting agency, telecom company, bank or travel firm receive the letters requesting customer information they are legally gagged and cannot alert anyone about the incident. Not the customer. Not their families. The individual can seek help from a lawyer but the lawyer then also becomes gagged.

Another worrisome feature of the NSLs are the fact that a judge is not needed to approve the letter or the gag order.

This situation has created a dangerous environment where opportunities for corruption are abundant.  At least one telecom has chosen to fight, however. In 2013 the unnamed company took their NSL to court to debate the constitutionality. U.S. District Judge Susan Illston in San Francisco ruled that the NSLs violated the First Amendment by removing the recipients ability to speak about the letter. Neither the EFF or the company itself can reveal their name. They face federal prison if they do so.

Whatever decisions is made by the appeals court will have huge implications for the way the FBI operates. The case is likely to end up being settled in the Supreme Court.

The US government is now asking the appeals court to throw out the 2013 ruling. US intelligence agencies state that the NSLs are essential to combating terrorism.  The EFF reports that over 300,000 NSLs have been issued in the past 10 years.  The President’s own Intelligence Review Group reported that 60 NSLs are issued everyday. While some reports have shown policy violations, a report issued in August by a Justice Department watchdog found that some improvements have been made. The report also issued ten new recommendations.
With more Americans questioning the reaches of federal surveillance programs and tools exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, it’s important to spread awareness on the variety of tools used by the government. Many Americans have never heard about the use of National Security Letters. By continuing to peek behind the curtain of control and working to dismantle government largess we can change the culture and build a future without oppressive government surveillance.
For More Information Visit the EFF’s  NSL Frequently Asked Questions