The Associated Press has an update on last week’s Washington Post report detailing a new proposal from the Obama administration that would make it easier for the FBI to get access to an individual’s activities on the Internet via expanded powers in National Security Letters (NSLs). The proposal raises substantial privacy questions.
Federal law requires communications providers to give records in counterintelligence investigations to the FBI, which doesn’t need a judge’s approval and court order to get them.
They can be obtained merely with the signature of a special agent in charge of any FBI field office, and there is no need for suspicion of wrongdoing — the records merely need to be considered relevant to a counterintelligence or counterterrorism investigation. The person whose records the government wants doesn’t even need to be a suspect.
The bureau’s use of these “national security letters,” as the requests are known, has a checkered history. […]
The bureau issued 192,499 national security letter requests from 2003 to 2006. Since then, the bureau has continued its reliance on the letters to gather information from telephone companies, banks, credit bureaus and Internet service providers.
That last source is the focus of the Justice Department as it presses Congress to clarify the Electronic Communications Privacy Act so that the FBI can continue to gather some electronic records without a warrant from a judge. […]
The critics say the proposed change would allow the FBI to remove federal judges and courts from scrutiny of its requests for sensitive information.
“The implications of the proposal are that no court is deciding whether even that low standard of ‘relevance’ is met,” [Gregory Nojeim, director of the Project on Freedom, Security and Technology at the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology,] said. “The FBI uses national security letters to find not just who the target of an investigation e-mailed, but also who those people e-mailed and who e-mailed them.”