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FBI's "National Security Letters" Threaten Online Speech and Privacy

May 25, 2004

FBI's "National Security Letters" Threaten Online Speech and Privacy

EFF Urges Court to Find USA PATRIOT Act Powers Unconstitutional

San Francisco -- The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) yesterday filed a friend-of-the court brief supporting the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a suit challenging the constitutionality of National Security Letters (NSLs). Authorized by the USA PATRIOT Act and issued directly by FBI agents without any court supervision and without a show of probable cause, the letters are used to demand detailed information about people's private Internet communications from ISPs, web mail providers, and other communications service providers. The people whose communications are searched are not notified, and every letter is accompanied by a gag order that prohibits the letter's recipient from ever revealing its existence.

"Before PATRIOT, the FBI could use National Security Letters only for securing the records of suspected terrorists or spies," said EFF Attorney and Equal Justice Works Fellow Kevin Bankston. "Now the FBI can use them to get private records about anybody it thinks could be relevant to a terrorism or espionage investigation, without ever having to show probable cause to a judge."

In its brief, EFF argues that the portion of the PATRIOT Act authorizing these warrantless government demands is unconstitutional, violating both First Amendment free speech rights and the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. By allowing FBI agents to access the complete online history of innocent Americans without proper safeguards against abuse, PATRIOT threatens to chill free speech on the Internet and make it impossible for Internet users to share unpopular ideas or associate with controversial groups anonymously.

"Using National Security Letters, the FBI can see what websites you visit, what mailing lists you subscribe to, who you correspond with, and much more -- all without judicial oversight of any kind," Bankston explained. "Yet this unrestrained power to examine innocent citizens' First Amendment activities online is merely one of the unconstitutional surveillance authorities granted to the FBI by the PATRIOT Act."

A favorable judgment in the ACLU's case would prohibit the FBI from using the National Security Letters any further.

Co-signatories to the EFF brief include the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Online Policy Group, Salon Media Group's division the WELL, and the U.S. Internet Industry Association.

Download the brief.

Contact:

Kevin Bankston
Attorney, Equal Justice Works / Bruce J. Ennis Fellow
Electronic Frontier Foundation
bankston@eff.org
+1 415 436-9333 x126

Lee Tien
Senior Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation
tien@eff.org
+1 415 436-9333 x102 (office), +1 510 501-8755 (cell)

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