FBI accessed personal web history, location data without warrant - court docs

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  1. #1 jainaG, Dec 2, 2015
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 2, 2015

    © Pawel Kopczynski / Reuters / RT

    A document released by the courts over the FBI's use of National Security
    Letters (NSLs) and gag orders show the agency used secret
    interpretations of the Patriot Act to demand extensive access to
    sensitive web history and location data - without a warrant.


    "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," Nicholas Merrill, former owner of Calyx
    Internet Access and a plaintiff in the case, said in a statement. The
    document released on Monday, in which the agency had demanded access to user data, was sent to Merrill by the FBI over a decade ago.

    "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 thoughts and
    beliefs," added Merrill.

    The court-ordered release on Monday shows the FBI believed that under
    the Patriot Act it could force online companies to turn over data simply
    by sending a National Security Letter demanding it. The data
    included an individual's complete web browsing history, the IP address
    of everyone a person has corresponded with, email addresses, and records
    of all online purchases.

    The FBI also claimed the authority to obtain cell-site location
    information with an NSL, effectively using a cell phone as a location
    tracking device. The FBI said in court filings that at some
    point it had stopped gathering location data as a matter of policy, but
    that it could secretly choose to resume the practice under existing

    The revelations come amidst an 11-year legal battle waged by the
    American Civil Liberties Union against the Justice Department on behalf
    of Nicholas Merrill, a business man, who questioned the validity of the
    FBI's use of a gag order with a First Amendment challenge.

    Citing the Patriot Act, the FBI refused to publicly reveal what kinds of
    private data it believed it could obtain with an NSL. Merrill became
    privy to the request's overreach when the FBI served him an NSL in 2004,
    demanding that he turn over the records of one of the customers of
    Calyx Internet Access, the internet company he owned.

    In September, the court agreed that the government
    had violated Merrill's constitutional rights, describing the FBI's
    position as "extreme and overly broad." It marked the first time that a
    gag order had been lifted since the FBI's authority to conduct
    warrantless spying was vastly expanded by the Patriot Act the in 2001.

    "Courts cannot, consistent with the First Amendment, simply accept the
    Government's assertions that disclosure would implicate and create a
    risk," wrote Judge Victor Marrero of the federal district court of
    Manhattan in his ruling. He also found that the FBI's overly broad gag
    order on Merrill "implicates serious issues, both with respect to the
    First Amendment and accountability of the government to the people."

    The government had 90 days to appeal the court's ruling, but declined to do so.

    More than 10,000 NSLs are issued to online companies by FBI officers
    every year, and almost all of those are accompanied by a complete gag
    order barring any public disclosure of what the FBI has requested or
    from whom. Merrill is the first person to have successfully and
    completely lifted an NSL gag.


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