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Twitter releases FBI data requests amid court battle over constitutional rights

Now that a gag order has been lifted, Twitter revealed information about two FBI data requests.


Christina Bonnington


Published Jan 30, 2017   Updated May 25, 2021, 2:39 am CDT

In an effort to be transparent with how it handles government requests for user data, Twitter recently revealed two secretive orders from the FBI. These requests, delivered under gag orders preventing Twitter from publicly discussing them or even notifying the affected users of the request, may violate constitutional guidelines. 

The two national security letters (NSLs) dating from 2015 and 2016 request electronic communication transaction records for Twitter users. (NSLs have grown increasingly common since the USA Patriot Act passed in 2001 and now number in the tens of thousands per year, Reuters reports.) In 2008, a Justice Department legal memo outlined the scope of what FBI can use NSLs for—that is, that they should be restricted to phone billing records only—but the FBI, disagreeing with that memo, has continued to use them for broader internet records, as well. 

Now that the gag order has been lifted, Twitter reached out to the affected individuals to share the NSL, along with what information the company shared with the FBI. 

“While the actual NSLs request a large amount of data, Twitter provides a very limited set of data in response to NSLs consistent with federal law and interpretive guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice,” Elizabeth Banker, Twitter’s associate general counsel, wrote in a blog post. You can view the NSLs, which originated from the FBI’s Jacksonville, Florida, and Houston divisions, here and here (account names have been redacted). 

Twitter is currently involved in a lawsuit, Twitter v. Lynch, to push back against such secretive government data requests. Twitter argues that it should be able to speak more freely about the requests it receives, as part of its transparency policy for users and its First Amendment rights. Twitter heads to court over the issue Feb. 14. 

H/T Gizmodo

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*First Published: Jan 30, 2017, 3:48 pm CST