Lawyers for a digital rights group squared off with federal attorneys in a San Francisco courthouse on Wednesday during an appeals hearing that will determine whether the government can serve telecom providers with gag orders when requesting user data.
Last year, United States District Judge Susan Illston ruled that the FBI’s use of administrative subpoenas known as National Security Letters, or NSLs, to compel telecoms for information about customers is unconstitutional, and faulted the bureau’s inclusion of gag orders with these requests as being in violation of First Amendment protections as well as the separation of powers principles. Federal prosecutors soon after appealed her ruling, however, setting the stage for the Ninth Circuit to hear oral arguments during Wednesday’s hearing in the city by the bay.
According to the government’s lawyers, national security concerns require that the FBI has the ability to force electronic communication providers into handing over user-specific information without the targeted individual ever being told, even calling that function a tool “to protect against international terrorism and clandestine intelligence activities” in a January 2014 brief. Attorneys for the locally-based Electronic Frontier Foundation have successfully argued already against the point-of-view of Justice Department lawyers, though, and hope to prove before the Ninth Circuit that, as one statement from the group reads, NSLs combined with mandatory nondisclosure orders “unilaterally gag recipients and prevent them from criticizing such actions publicly” and “permit the FBI to wield enormous power and to operate without meaningful checks.”
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