Thanks to the EFF’s efforts, another set of National Security Letters have been published and their recipient freed to discuss them. CREDO Mobile received two NSLs in 2013 — both accompanied with the usual indefinite gag order. The NSLs [PDF 1] [PDF 2] requested a wealth of data on three of CREDO’s customers — including all call records, financial information (credit cards used, etc.), and personal information (name, address, etc.) — dating back to April 2008.
CREDO challenged the constitutionality of the indefinite gag orders as well as the constitutionality of the NSLs themselves.
“A founding principle of CREDO is to fight for progressive causes we believe in, and we believe that NSLs are unconstitutional. These letters, and the gag orders that came with them, infringed our free speech rights, blocking us from talking to our members about them or discussing our experience while lawmakers debated NSL reform,” said Ray Morris, CREDO CEO. “We were proud to fight these NSLs all these years, and now we are proud to publish the letters and take full part in the ensuing debate.”
CREDO’s challenge to the gag order was upheld [PDF] by a federal judge in March, who struck it down when the FBI failed to show a need for the continued secrecy. This decision was held pending the FBI’s appeal, but the government apparently decided this wasn’t a battle it wanted to fight and dropped its appeal of the court’s order.
The government’s decision to drop the appeal highlights one of the (many) problems with NSLs. These are self-issued administrative orders subject to very little, if any, oversight. The FBI can issue as many of these as it wants without ever having to get a judge involved. Every one of these arrives with an indefinite gag order attached, forcing recipients to lawyer up if they want to challenge the government’s demands for secrecy.
The government clearly felt it couldn’t demonstrate why this gag order should still be in place. But the government doesn’t have to justify its demands for secrecy at the point the NSL is issued. It only needs to do this if challenged in court. While some judges have expressed an interest in periodic reviews of NSLs to determine the need for ongoing secrecy, these conclusions are the exception rather than the rule.
That judges are the ones making this determination is another part of the problem. In response to the USA Freedom Act, the DOJ instituted a policy requiring a “periodic” review of issued NSLs. Unfortunately, that’s all it does. There’s no definition attached to “periodic,” which means the review could happen every few years… or never.
The constitutionality of the orders themselves should still be actively challenged. While much of what is sought with these falls under the very generous definition of “third party records,” the lack of any oversight or judicial review makes these the go-to tool for the FBI — which has been known to issue NSLs when its warrant requests are turned down by federal courts. Throw an indefinite gag order on it, and the FBI can pretty much ensure complete compliance from recipients, whose only option is to fight an often-futile legal battle against the government.