FBI has been authorized by federal statute to issue National Security Letters (NSL) for decades. NSLs are used to gather basic information about a company’s customers. NSLs do not require judicial oversight or a warrant.
The rules governing NSLs were strengthened (or loosened depending on how you look at it) after the September 11th attacks. The FBI uses these letters to obtain data on phone, financial or electronic records, but not the content of such records, without a judge or grand jury. All the FBI had to do was certify that the request was relevant to a counter-terrorism investigation.
The NSLs have not been challenged very strongly until an unnamed phone company brought such a challenge in California court in 2011. The company that is challenging the NSLs on Constitutional grounds, saying that the gag orders illegally restrain free speech without a judge’s order and that the Department of Justice cannot demand this information without a court order, is not able to talk on the case publicly, so we do not know which company it is, only that it is in the mobile and long distance industry.
Judge Susan Illston of the US District Court, Northern District of California, agreed with the challenge and ordered the government to either stop issuing NSLs, or stop enforcing the gag orders that accompany the letters. Unfortunately, Judge Illston said that enforcement of her ruling would be stayed since it is obvious the government would appeal the judgment.
Matt Zimmerman, the senior attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is representing this unnamed company said only, “The government's gags have truncated the public debate on these controversial surveillance tools. Our client looks forward to the day when it can publicly discuss its experience.”
The video below provides background about the case and NSLs when the case made headlines on The Wall Street Journal last summer.
source: The Wall Street Journal