Google Transparency Report Highlights Just How Much We Don't Know About National Security Letters

Dan Auerbach and Eva Galperin | Electronic Frontier Foundation | March 6, 2013

In an unprecedented win for transparency, yesterday Google began publishing generalized information about the number of National Security Letters that the company received in the past year as well as the total number of user accounts affected by those requests. Of all the dangerous government surveillance powers that were expanded by the USA PATRIOT Act, the National Security Letter (NSL) power provided by five statutory provisions is one of the most frightening and invasive.

These letters--the type served on communications service providers such as phone companies and ISPs and are authorized by 18 U.S.C. 2709--allow the FBI to secretly demand data about ordinary American citizens' private communications and Internet activity without any prior judicial review. To make matters worse, recipients of NSLs are subject to gag orders that forbid them from ever revealing the letters' existence to anyone.

Google has led the way among large companies in providing transparency with respect to legal and law enforcement requests with its transparency report, but until now, it has always left NSL requests out of its tally of requests for user data, in part, presumably, due to concerns about the accompanying gag order. By including this data, even in a generalized way that only tells us that Google received somewhere between 0 and 999 NSLs in 2012, Google has helped to at least shed some limited light on the ways in which the US government uses these secretive demands for data about users...