MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

See for Yourself for the First Time What User Data the FBI Demanded in a National Security Letter

Gag order lifted in decades-old case fought by small Internet provider.

It has taken more than a decade but transparency has finally won. As of today, we can see, at least in one case, what information the FBI demanded an online company provide to them—without a warrant and with a permanent gag order—about individuals as part of the war on terror.

Nicholas Merrill, the former owner and operator of New York-based Calyx Internet Access, received in 2004 what is called a National Security Letter (NSL), a demand from the FBI that he provide information about his company’s users to the FBI and to keep his mouth shut, with the possibility of prosecution if he failed to keep his secret.

Merrill refused to provide the information and fought the gag order. With the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union and Yale law students, he has finally, as 2015 comes to an end, won. Today he has revealed an unredacted list of demanded information that was included in the NSL. Are you ready for the information the FBI has been fighting for so long to keep secret? Here it is:

Day AND Evening phone numbers. Do people still have those?Via Yale Information Society ProjectAt this point, I doubt anybody would be surprised at what is on this list. Given how much the government has been fighting to keep this gag order, we should be surprised that it isn’t even more intrusive than it already appears to be. It's nevertheless important for all Americans to know with certainty what sort of information the FBI has been demanding about them without any warrants, while keeping it a secret from its own citizens. It's also a reminder that the mass phone metadata collection that finally ended this past weekend was only one small piece of the surveillance machine.

It’s also a reminder that even before Edward Snowden’s leaks, there were people out there who had a good sense of how much information the government was trying to collect and had been fighting against it. Snowden’s position and confirmation gave ammunition to these folks fighting to protect citizen transparency and force out some government transparency.

Read more about Merrill’s fight here and more of the ACLU’s history with the lawsuit here.

Photo Credit: Pixel Addict / photo on flickr

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Dances-with-Trolls||

    It's also a reminder that the mass phone metadata collection that finally ended this past weekend

    That kind of faith is so cute..

  • Mark6||

    cute as in a child -like fantasy

  • ||

    Has the w*o*o*d*c*h*i*p*p*e*r* incident ever been totally resolved ?

    What was the final result. I can't remember the poster's handle but just vaguely remember one of them saying he wasn't allowed to discuss it and I don't know if hr/she still posts here or not.

    Anyone know ?

  • Scarecrow & WoodChipper Repair||

    I'd say at least two people know.

  • ||

    And you're not talking . ?

  • Ted S.||

    Agammamon still posts here, I think.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    I hope the FBI uses my information about my burgeoning fleshlight collection to fight terrorism, the drug war, and obesity.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Make your penis "obese" with this one weird trick.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I'd be fascinated to know if the ISP kept "merchandise ordering/shipping information".

    Do they mean orders made to/from the ISP?

  • Overt||

    Most likely they are assuming that the ISP provides email service to the person in question.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Yeah, so if that's the case, seems like a roundabout way of asking for email content.

  • Adam330||

    Well the last sentence says they aren't asking for email content, so that doesn't seem like a good interpretation.

  • Mickey Rat||

    It could mean that the government does not understand what it was asking for.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Thank you for that. I read that last sentence and didn't understand it. Yep, I agree, that's how I interpret it-- that the request says they're not asking for non-meta data.

    So I guess I'm back to my first question, orders from whom?

  • In League with the Dark Ones||

    I think it's a form letter… the FBI sent them to a whole bunch of companies. It'd make sense if the FBI sent them to Amazon or GoDaddy.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    IP address assigned to the account? Whoa. I wasn't expecting that.

  • PapayaSF||

    "The account" in the letter confuses me. Were they asking for all this about a specific account, or for all accounts?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Yes.

  • Overt||

    What is interesting about this is that they don't actually request the data in this NSL. They just ask the company to provide a response as to which of the data they log and might be able to furnish IF the government decides.

    What I want to know is whether or not the NSL is sufficient to mandate the actual contents of that data to be turned over, or if that would actually require a FISA warrant.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    This is actually a good question. I get the feeling that this NSL is the 'tip of the spear' so to speak.

  • Almanian's Rusty Woodchipper||

    You go, AnonBot. You go.

  • Rich||

    "you should determine whether your company maintains the following types of information"

    "'Maintains'?! Hell, no!!"

  • Spartacus||

    "We maintain the data on the same hard drive the IRS uses for email storage."

  • AlmightyJB||

    Awesome:)

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Why can't the NSA send one of these to Hillary? Oh, because she's not required to keep such data records.

    My bad.

  • Jake Stone||

    Reason's too smart to spread the falsehood that the spying has stopped. If nothing else, now they get to do it "off the record" and it will likely get worse.

  • jebkicker||

    Interesting how they tell him to ensure no content is handed over because that of course would break the law. All while violating the Fourth Amendment.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online