data privacy

Court rules FBI access to private data unconstitutional

Warwick Ashford

A US court has ruled that “national security letters” (NSLs) to obtain citizens’ private data and slap a gagging order on recipients are a breach of the constitution’s first amendment.

Judge Susan Illston ordered the US government to stop issuing NSLs under the US Patriot Act, in what the Guardian describes as a “dramatic setback” for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

NSLs, which prevent recipients from talking about them in public, have been an increasingly important part of the US government's approach to counter-terrorism, the paper said.

The FBI issued more than 16,000 NSLs in 2012 to access the financial, internet and phone data of more than 7,000 US citizens.

The FBI has been criticised for using the letters far more extensively than in the limited counter-terrorism situations for which they are intended.

The ruling by Judge Illston was made after a telecoms company that received an NSL sued the FBI for breach of its rights, and the FBI counter-sued the company.

The telecoms company was represented in the case by the Electronics Frontier Foundation (EFF), which said the court order exposed the constitutional shortcomings of the NSLs.

The EFF’s legal director, Cindy Cohn, said the NSL statute had long been a concern of many Americans and the order would help restore balance between liberty and security.

Credo Mobile, the telecoms company believed to be behind the court case, has hailed the ruling as a “significant legal breakthrough”.

The company said the order had finally stopped the US government's unconstitutional practice of using NSLs to obtain private information without court oversight and its denial of the first amendment rights of NSL recipients.


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