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Privacy Government United States

Revealed: What Info the FBI Can Collect With a National Security Letter 93

An anonymous reader writes with this lead from Help Net Security's story on a topic we've touched on here many times: the broad powers arrogated by the Federal government in the form of National Security Letters: On Monday, after winning an eleven-year legal battle, Nicholas Merrill can finally tell the public how the FBI has secretly construed its authority to issue National Security Letters (NSLs) to permit collection of vast amounts of private information on US citizens without a search warrant or any showing of probable cause. The PATRIOT Act vastly expanded the domestic reach of the NSL program, which allows the FBI to compel disclosure of information from online companies and forbid recipients from disclosing they have received an NSL. The FBI has refused to detail publicly the kinds of private data it believes it can obtain with an NSL. A key sentence from the same story: "Merrill is now able to reveal that the FBI believes it can force online companies to turn over the following information simply by sending an NSL demanding it: an individual’s complete web browsing history; the IP addresses of everyone a person has corresponded with; and records of all online purchases." Reader Advocatus Diaboli adds this, from The Intercept: One of the most striking revelations, Merrill said during a press teleconference, was that the FBI was requesting detailed cell site location information — cellphone tracking records — under the heading of "radius log" information. Traditionally, radius log refers to a user's attempts to connect to a server or a DSL line — a sort of anachronism given the progress of technology. "The notion that the government can collect cellphone location information — to turn your cellphone into a tracking device, just by signing a letter — is extremely troubling," Merrill said.
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Revealed: What Info the FBI Can Collect With a National Security Letter

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  • Troubling? (Score:3, Informative)

    by fustakrakich ( 1673220 ) on Tuesday December 01, 2015 @10:03AM (#51033117) Journal

    What's troubling is that people allow it to happen. The polls all say that they want it. The reelection rates confirm it.

    • Re:Troubling? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by fizzer06 ( 1500649 ) on Tuesday December 01, 2015 @10:06AM (#51033135)
      "Article the sixth...

      The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

      • Re: Troubling? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by ememisya ( 1548255 ) on Tuesday December 01, 2015 @10:42AM (#51033371) Homepage
        What are you, some kind of constitutionalist weirdo? Those are old documents, you ain't got no such rights. As long as you are against pointless surveillance, you'll be monitored. What are you hiding? On the list you go.
        • Exactly. The constitution really only applies to things that existed when the document was written. Things invented since then, particularly the internet and wireless communication aren't covered by it.

          The President and the NSA told me so. They have a secret legal opinion of an interning lawyer that says so. And they only had to get 12 of them written before getting the one they wanted.

      • while this is true, it's perfectly legal to issue a subpoena or some other court order to collect evidence of a crime or a plan of future criminal activity. that's what a NSL is. and you are not searching anyone's home or property under an NSL, you are searching the records of their public interactions with the rest of society. so unless you search the inside of their car or the data on their cell phone, you don't need a warrant now go back to elementary school and maybe post those stupid meme's of the fo
        • by Anonymous Coward

          A subpoena is issued by a court, upon the sworn testimony of a government official, typically a law enforcement officer. An NSL is issued by a law enforcement agency under it's own cognizance, with no oversight. That's the difference. An NLS is not a subpoena, and can be a violation of the fourth amendment. The lack of court oversight might be a violation of the sixth amendment. The Freedom Act has not yet been fully vetted by the courts. Certainly parts of the Patriot Act were on their way to being invalid

        • while this is true, it's perfectly legal to issue a subpoena or some other court order to collect evidence of a crime or a plan of future criminal activity.

          That court order is called a "warrant". Subpoenas are also issued by the court or its officers, but only in conjunction with a pending court case. The main point is that the court issues both of those documents, not an executive agency under its own authority. Also, note that the Fourth Amendment covers "persons, houses, papers, and effects", not j
      • The Queen of England has more power than hollow words without the will and the balls it takes to enforce them.

    • That's a lot like saying, "Some people don't like freedom." No, they do. If nobody is on T.V. about it, that just tells you something about T.V. not public opinion. It's obvious to even a rabbit that privacy is a cherished value by living things, and nobody takes the public stance other than Mr. Sanders that this is a bad idea. You don't want to go, "Hey NSA, please don't watch me! I'm against unreasonable and warrantless search and seizure." NSA would be like, "Who? You? John Q Smith whose favorite
      • Re: Troubling? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by MyAlternateID ( 4240189 ) on Tuesday December 01, 2015 @11:30AM (#51033687) Homepage

        That's a lot like saying, "Some people don't like freedom."

        A lot of people really don't like freedom. Real liberty might mean that other people can do things you don't approve of. They might adopt a lifestyle you don't like. They might want to marry a same-sex partner. They might want to smoke a joint in their own home. They might want to have consentual sex between adult people in which money is involved, or a position other than missionary. A willing buyer might want to purchase alcohol from a willing seller on a Sunday. Someone might want to own a gun in certain areas, or carry that gun concealed, both with no intention of shooting anyone unless mortally threatened. They might want to buy raw milk with a full understanding of any risk involved. They might want to collect rainwater. They might want to install roll bars (a safety feature) on their vehicle. They might want to generate their own electricity and go off-grid without the city condemning their property.

        In some parts of the world they might want to practice an unapproved religion, educate their daughters, hear a woman sing, or explore their feelings for another consenting adult of the same sex.

        All of these things are illegal somewhere. The urge to pry into the lives of others and worry about what other people are doing, how they are living, and find ways to stop them is rampant. There are large numbers of small-minded busybodies who seem to have no lives of their own, thus they need a piece of someone else's. Achieving the force of law is their ultimate wet dream. They like "freedom" when it means "things I personally approve of", which makes a mockery of what freedom actually is. Yes, one can reasonably conclude that lots and lots of people really don't like freedom.

        If these UFOs people keep reporting actually are advanced aliens from a distant star system, it's no wonder they don't make open contact. They're looking down at us and saying, "clearly they aren't ready yet. All they seem to care about is controlling each other. They most admire the ones who are best at it, calling them great leaders."

    • I don't recall this ever coming up as an election issue. You can't vote to correct a problem if you don't know about it, and they work very hard to ensure you don't know. Simple solution: mandatory disclosure of released information after 1 year. Sufficient for police work, will strongly discourage fishing expeditions.
      • I don't recall this ever coming up as an election issue.

        Exactly...

        Simple solution: mandatory disclosure of released information after 1 year.

        That won't happen until it becomes an election issue. Without it, there is no incentive. We are on our own...

    • by jonwil ( 467024 )

      The problem is that the US government via their friends in the mainstream mass media have brainwashed the sheeple into thinking that the only way to prevent the next 9/11 is to carry out unconstitutional wholesale surveillance on everyone on the planet.

      Unless you can stop the brainwashing and get the sheeple to realize that no, violating everyone civil liberties and constitutional rights is NOT going to help stop the terrorists, nothing is going to change.

    • by Agripa ( 139780 )

      Exactly! The people reelected either a Republican or Democrat so they must want a ubiquitous surveillance state!

  • No Surprises (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 01, 2015 @10:11AM (#51033165)

    I see no surprises. Everything that they have revealed has been known or suspected by anyone that gave it any real thought.

    Also no surprise... The VAST majority of American citizens are to self-centered to care. They just don't care! 'It's not happening to me(that I know of) and I don't give a flying fuck about you.'

    People are too stupid to care. This situation will get a hell of a lot worse before anyone tries to do anything about it. The perfect example is last Sunday's lie that the NSA was ceasing broad collection. Nobody knows about it, even fewer care about it and the NSA sure as hell didn't stop shit! But, who cares, right?

    • Re: No Surprises (Score:4, Insightful)

      by ememisya ( 1548255 ) on Tuesday December 01, 2015 @10:44AM (#51033389) Homepage
      Most people are too scared to say anything at all so that they don't have their lives intruded upon.
      • Most people are too scared to say anything at all so that they don't have their lives intruded upon.

        Uh, I hate to burst your bubble here, but most people are actually overbearing narcissists addicted to social media who are hell-bent on ensuring their online lives intrude upon yours.

        We're in the middle of a discussion about intelligence agencies acting illegally under citizens that ignore it. Don't try and paint the average citizen as suddenly caring about privacy or legality, because they could give a shit about either.

      • I have no idea who your generalization is supposed to be covering. "Most" people would fall into the original comment. People who are too brainwashed to do anything, or care about anything, that the media does not tell them to do, or care, about. Mindless drones who sit staring at a 2.5x3" screen occasionally banging it with their thumbs. Reading 100 character strings for their life philosophy, and shouting down anyone that disagrees with their 140 character and 2 meme opinion.

        I wish that was a scary ex

  • by Anonymous Coward

    You are all Cows. Cows say nothing. nothing. nothing! nothing cows nothing! nothing say the cows. YOU GAG ORDERED COWS!!!

    • Cows say nothing. nothing. nothing! nothing cows nothing! nothing say the cows

      Not true at all. I've seen them on TV. Some cows chat with each other about how contented they are, and how that makes their milk taste better. Other cows hold up picket signs that read "Eat more Chikin."

  • "The notion that the government can collect cellphone location information — to turn your cellphone into a tracking device, just by signing a letter — is extremely troubling,"

    Really? THAT is what you call extremely troubling?

    Here's what is truly troubling...the fact that every owner of a smart phone already did this in some way when they agreed to the EULA attached to the power button, and yet none realize it.

    It didn't take governments to eliminate privacy or security. Cheap-ass consumers hell-bent on demanding all services be given to them for free did that.

    • Another part that is troubling, but also interesting, is that various courts have already decided that gathering some of this data without a warrant is unconstitutional. Just because an NSL is used to get the data doesn't magically make it legal.
      • A judicial ruling that this is unconstitutional means the government can't pass a law or use an executive order or issue a NSL to do this. It would require a constitutional amendment.
        • A SCOTUS ruling that this is unconstitutional means the government can't pass a law or use an executive order or issue a NSL to do this. It would require a constitutional amendment.

          FTFY

          • You didn't "fix" anything. It doesn't require a SCOTUS ruling. All it requires is a ruling that is not appealed (or the higher courts refuse to hear an appeal).
            • You didn't "fix" anything. It doesn't require a SCOTUS ruling. All it requires is a ruling that is not appealed (or the higher courts refuse to hear an appeal).

              The US government has continued to do many things that various lesser judges have ruled unconstitutional at one point or other, but a Supreme Court ruling puts the matter to rest for good (barring a constitutional amendment). And if SCOTUS refuses to hear a case, well, that's a ruling of a sort, too. You need SCOTUS to settle the matter, either way.

    • People are fine with it as a tracking device. Even the concept of a nearby business sending a quick coupon is cool.

      It is unauthorized access by government that is a serious issue. By that I mean warrantless. Attaching a tracking device to a car without a warrant was ruled unconstiutional.

      Just get the damned warrants.

  • by swillden ( 191260 ) <shawn-ds@willden.org> on Tuesday December 01, 2015 @10:36AM (#51033335) Homepage Journal

    NSLs are restricted to allowing collection only of "non-content information", or metadata. But what does that mean? In the case of telephone calls, it's pretty clear. With web history, though, it's much less clear, because a list of URLs is a list not only of which servers you connected to, but in most cases also what information you retrieved. The URL doesn't contain the information itself, but it's trivial for someone else to retrieve it and find out what you read.

    Cell location information is another debatable case. While in some sense it is metadata if we consider the content to be what you talk about on the phone, the data you send/receive, etc., it's also tantamount to having a tracking device on almost everyone. Courts have ruled that GPS tracking without a warrant is unconstitutional, and it really seems that this is the same thing. The precision is lower, but it's still pretty darned good.

    As for purchases, it would seem that information about what you bought and how much you paid for it would constitute "content", while the times and locations of the transactions would be metadata.

    IP addresses of people you corresponded with... that seems like pure metadata, and is unsurprising to me.

    • by DarkOx ( 621550 )

      The problem is metadata is a description that only makes sense in context. One person's metadata is data to someone else.

      Even with the the phone company. What cell you were connected to and when is metadata to the billing division. To them data is which customer, using what service, for how long. (roaming aside) What cells you were using are not important that is data about where the other data came from. To the groups that do network operations and capacity planning: They don't care about who mostly,

      • I don't think the legal system should be trying to declare what is or isn't metadata, certainly not for the sake of making some qualitative judgment about if its subject to constitutional protections. We should stick to the reasonable expectation of privacy test, that has been used in the past. If someone would reasonably expect the known dispositions of whatever data they are sending/producing/modifying would be private the government should need a warrant!

        Agreed. And if you're looking for a test group to validate a reasonable expectation, I'd say let's start with lawmakers.

        After all, I'm certain they'll consider their own data benign and inconsequential, especially after someone tells them their life fucking story, armed with just their "meta" GPS data...

    • by Scutter ( 18425 )

      Do you have any idea how incredibly valuable "metadata" is for signals intelligence?

      • Do you have any idea how incredibly valuable "metadata" is for signals intelligence?

        Yes. What's your point?

  • The result of this strategy, of course, is a small population of ever more skilled people who can hide illegal activities via encryption, message splitting, or other methods, while making the noise (i.e. banal, legal activity) more voluminous, easy to get, expensive to process, and meaningless.

    • The Paris attack happened because the intelligence agencies are spending so much time/money/manpower spying on "law abiding" citizens that they don't have time to actively watch the known troublemakers. The Paris attackers were on watch lists, they were known to be a threat.
  • Truly troubling (Score:5, Insightful)

    by chihowa ( 366380 ) on Tuesday December 01, 2015 @10:53AM (#51033451)

    The FBI has refused to detail publicly the kinds of private data it believes it can obtain with an NSL.

    The truly troubling part is not the specifics of what they collect, but the fact that they think that they should operate with no accountability to the citizenry. A government operating on secret interpretations of laws is entirely at odds with a democratic system.

    • Re:Truly troubling (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Fire_Wraith ( 1460385 ) on Tuesday December 01, 2015 @11:14AM (#51033591)
      This is it exactly.

      We're never going to be able to completely put the genie back in the bottle short of throwing away all of our phones and computers. The communications, the data, it's out there. Furthermore, just like there are times we want the FBI/Police etc to get a wiretap, there are times we'd want them to be able to monitor someone. That's never been the concern - it's always been about accountability and oversight.

      The government, be it FBI/DOJ or NSA/CIA/etc, shouldn't have the power to freely go demanding, let alone collect and store, all of this stuff without some kind of external oversight, just like they've been prevented from freely coming into your house and going through your personal papers. If they really have cause to do so, they can go to a judge and get a warrant. That won't prevent every abuse, sure, but it at least provides a paper trail and accountability for later, as well as the means to challenge that original action if the FBI/etc goes overboard.
  • Note what this (or any) NSL does not request, for good or ill given the explosion in digital communications since Smith v Maryland in 1979 and subsequent case law (which effectively says that metadata, as "business records" provided to a third party, do not have an expectation of privacy and are not covered by the Fourth Amendment): CONTENT of communications.

    Note what is also missing here: the target. People assume it's an innocent US Person. The fact is, if a NSL is used, the person is almost certainly a f

    • Wonderful, but if the NSL is truly for National Security, make it illegal to use information gained using one in a domestic criminal investigation or give it to any corporation for their commercial use.
  • "The notion that the government can collect cellphone location information — to turn your cellphone into a tracking device, just by signing a letter — is extremely troubling,"

    You should always treat your cellphone as a tracking device.

  • NSL They didn't send me one yet. I wish the passive aggressive

Is it possible that software is not like anything else, that it is meant to be discarded: that the whole point is to always see it as a soap bubble?

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