Google has been ordered to comply with FBI requests for user information that came in the form of National Security Letters (NSLs) by U.S. District Court Judge Susan Illston.
According to the AP, the judge’s order which was released on May 20 does not mention Google by name.
Still, she mentioned that the company that decided to fight FBI’s requests was also involved in an almost identical case filed in New York federal court on April 22, and public records show that on that day the federal government petitioned the court to make Google supply information requested in National Security Letters.
NSLs are a very controversial information request method available to U.S. government agencies when investigating matters related to national security, and are issued without judicial oversight.
The information requested with a NSL is limited to so-called “non-content information” (transactional records, email addresses mailed to and from, and so on), and in an overwhelming number of cases is usually accompanies by a gag order, which prevents the entity receiving it from informing the user about it.
But in 2007 an internal report by the U.S. Department of Justice found that the letters were being misused by the FBI, and the Bureau’s director Robert Mueller promised to remedy the situation.
It is also interesting to note that Judge Illston has recently ruled against the FBI in a similar case.
Back in March, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has spearheaded a lawsuit on behalf of an unidentified telecommunications company who also didn’t want to comply with the NSLs, and in that case Judge Illston decided that the letters – and especially the gag order that accompanies them – would violate the customers’ freedom of speech and expression.
That decision is still not set in stone, as the U.S. government is still pursing the matter and has sent an appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In this latest case, Judge Illston seems to have been satisfied with the explanations given by two FBI agents in sworn affidavits, and has ordered Google to comply to 17 of the 19 NSLs they contested. In order to decide on the remaining two, she requires the agency to provide more information.
As a side note: Google has recently started to add information to its bi-annual Transparency Report about non-court ordered FBI data requests they received during the last 6 months.