A court ruling released on Monday has uncovered the FBI’s use of secretive letters to force companies to give out private customer data without an official warrant.
The ruling was publicised following an 11 year-long legal case made by Nicholas Merrill against the security agency, who refused to obey a national security letter (NSL) he received back in 2004.
The founder of Calyx Internet Access filed the lawsuit after receiving the NSL instructing him to hand over one individual’s complete web browsing history, records of all online purchases and the IP addresses of everyone they communicated with.
National security letters are issued by the FBI to carry out electronic surveillance without court approval, requiring just one signature from an FBI agent.
Speaking about why he feels NSLs are an intrusion of privacy, Merrill said: “The FBI has interpreted its NSL authority to encompass the websites we read, the web searches we conduct, the people we contact, and the places we go.
“This kind of data reveals the most intimate details of our lives, including our political activities, religious affiliations, private relationships, and even our private thoughts and beliefs.”
According to Reuters, this document is believed to mark the first time the US government has spoken in detail about the purpose of its national security letters.
The ruling is also notable because it’s the first time a person has won a case against the FBI to lift an NSL order, and has brought the secretive workings of the orders to the attention of the public.