A US judge has declared unconstitutional an Obama government initiative to spy upon American citizens.
On Friday US District Judge Susan Illston ruled that the so-called “National Security Letters” (NSL) program was in contravention of the constitution.
An NSL is a demand letter issued by US government agencies, mainly the FBI, when investigating matters relate to national security. It is issued to a particular entity or organization to turn over various records and data pertaining to individuals. NSLs can obtain transactional records, phone numbers dialed, or email addresses used.
They also contain a gag order, preventing the recipient of the letter from disclosing that the letter was ever issued.
The gag order was earlier ruled unconstitutional as an infringement of free speech in the Doe v. Gonzales case, but this decision was superseded by the Second Circuit Court after the USA PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act gave recipients of NSL gag orders recourse in court.
Judge Illston struck down the law establishing NSLs, writing that the prohibition on disclosure of receipt of such an order made the statute “impermissibly overbroad” under the First Amendment.
Her ruling also struck down a statute prohibiting legal challenges by recipients of the security letters, but stayed implementation of her ruling to allow the government to appeal the decision.
Hundreds of thousands of NSL requests have already been issued by the FBI, with one report revealing that from 2003 to 2006, alone, some 192,499 such requests were issued.
Unlike ordinary subpoenas or other investigative methods, NSLs involve almost no oversight and only require a Special Agent to claim that the information requested is relevant to an investigation.
If a telecom or internet company is given an NSL, they are usually compelled to give the government account details about certain customers. Without relying on court approval, though, those requests can be issued with ease, raising concerns from many that the government is operating in secrecy to spy on Americans.