A nonprofit digital library has successfully fought an FBI attempt to seize information about one of its users, and is calling on other groups to challenge government agencies attempting to obtain online customer information without a judge's order.
The FBI presented the San Francisco-based Internet Archive with a national security letter in November asking for a library patron's records. The group sued the agency a month later, alleging the letter violated free speech rights because they prohibit recipients from talking to anyone else about them.
The Internet Archive said Wednesday the FBI agreed to withdraw the letter last week and make the case, which had been filed under seal, public. Sections of the lawsuit and supporting documents detailing what and who investigators were looking into have been blacked out.
National security letters are used to compel businesses to turn over customer information without a judge's order or grand jury subpoena. They are most typically served on Internet service providers and telephone companies demanding billing records, subscriber information and other electronic communication transactional records.
The companies receiving the letters are barred from telling customers who are the targets of the FBI demands.
Bureau defends its efforts
The FBI defended its demand Wednesday on the Internet Archive in particular and the letters in general as important weapons to fight terrorism.
"The information requested in the national security letter was relevant to an ongoing, authorized national security investigation," Assistant FBI Director John Miller said in a statement. He said the NSLs "remain indispensable tools for national security investigations and permit the FBI to gather the basic building blocks for our counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigations."
The FBI didn't explain what prompted the agency to settle this case.
The FBI issued nearly 200,000 of the letters between 2003 and 2006 but has been challenged in court only three times, said American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Melissa Goodman, who represented the Internet Archive.
Goodman said the FBI has lost all three challenges, including in a case last year that a federal judge in New York ruled the letters unconstitutional. The government has appealed that decision.
"Without judicial or public oversight, there is literally nothing stopping the FBI from issuing improper demands for records," Goodman said.
Letters improperly used
FBI Director Robert Mueller has conceded that the bureau improperly used NSLs without proper authorization and in non-emergency situations between 2003 and 2005, but has told Congress the FBI had since instituted better safeguards.
Goodman and others involved in the San Francisco case, including Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle, declined to discuss any details about the information the FBI sought or the name of the patron.
Another Internet Archive attorney, Kurt Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the library collects "extremely limited nonpublic information" and that publicly available data was given to the FBI.
The Internet Archive was launched in 1996 in collaboration with the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and other public organizations to provide a permanent record of Web pages. Its Wayback Machine function lets users access some 55 billion pages of archived Internet pages that may no longer be available for viewing anywhere else.