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Thursday, July 25, 2024 | Back issues
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EFF Urges Court to Kill|National Security Letters

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed two briefs asking the 9th Circuit to stop the federal government from issuing national security letters that allow it to spy on millions of Americans.

The briefs were sealed, however, because the government continues to contend that identifying the parties involved would threaten national security.

The San Francisco-based civil rights watchdog did say that one of the briefs was filed on behalf of a telecom company, while the other was for an Internet company.

"While the facts surrounding the specific companies and the NSLs [national security letters] they are challenging cannot be disclosed, their legal positions are already public: The NSL statute is a violation of the First Amendment as well as the constitutional separation of powers," the EFF said in a statement.

"The NSL statute allows the FBI to demand potentially protected information without any court oversight," the group's attorney, Matt Zimmerman, said. "Furthermore, it permits the FBI to independently gag recipients so that NSL recipients like our clients have no ability to notify their customers or the public that any demands were made, let alone that they went to court to stop them."

The federal government has maintained that its spying activities are not only necessary for its anti-terrorism efforts, but are also buoyed by all three branches of the federal government.

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston in San Francisco ruled in March 2013 that national security letters are unconstitutional and ordered the FBI to stop issuing them. Her decision, however, was stayed pending appeal with the 9th Circuit.

The decision came after the EFF challenged an NSL on behalf of an unnamed telecommunications company.

"The fight over NSLs and the government's dangerous practice of bypassing meaningful review by the judicial branch is not an academic one -- real people and real companies are involved, battling for their constitutional rights and the rights of their users," Zimmerman said. "The district court was right: The First Amendment prevents the FBI from engaging in such invasive, secretive, and unaccountable activities."

Verizon has acknowledged publicly that it received up to 2,000 national security letters last year, but said it was not allowed to say the exact number it received.

It also said that it responded to a number of international requests for information, with Germany making the most requests at 2,996, followed by France's 1,347.

President Barack Obama earlier this month outlined "new limits" on how the United States would use secretly collected phone data of millions of Americans.

The EFF called for more scrutiny of national security letters.

Meanwhile, the constitutionality of America's spying has split the U.S. courts.

U.S. District Judge William Pauley III in Manhattan ruled against the American Civil Liberties Union, saying that the government's efforts to prevent terror attacks trump Americans right to privacy.

In Washington, D.C., U.S. District Judge Richard Leon ruled that the National Security Agency's data-collection protections is unconstitutional. However, he stayed an order to enforce his ruling pending appeal.

Talks of the government's spying on millions of Americas came after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked top-secret orders revealing the existence of a once-secret domestic surveillance program.

One such order forced Verizon to "turn over, every day, metadata about the calls made by each of its subscribers over the three-month period ending on July 19, 2013."

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