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Federal court overturns FBI’s warrantless National Security Letter gag order
One of the FBI’s most controversial practices faces a major setback.
The case addressed the use of a National Security Letter, a legal demand for information that’s often used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and which both does not require a warrant and gags its recipients.
The case is that of Nicholas Merrill, one of the most outspoken of the few known NSL recipients, and the founder of Calyx, a small, since-defunct Internet service provider. In 2004, the FBI served him with an NSL, compelling him to not only turn over information on one of his customers, but to keep his mouth shut that he’d ever received the order.
Merrill spent years in legal limbo, and he was forced to stay silent even as a judge gave the go-ahead to make as elements of his case public. At one point, he couldn’t publicly accept an award given to him by the ACLU as it would be a violation of the NSL’s gag order.
In his decision, Judge Victor Marrero said that “the Government has not demonstrated a good reason to believe that potential targets of national security investigations will change their behavior to evade detection, or that disclosure of [the NSL] would create a substantial risk.”
“For more than a decade, the FBI has fought tooth and nail in order to prevent me from speaking freely about the NSL I received,” Merrill said in a jubilant press release. “I hope today’s victory will finally allow Americans to engage in an informed debate about proper the scope of the government’s warrantless surveillance powers.”
The government has 90 days to appeal the decision before the gag is formally and completely undone.
A former senior politics reporter for the Daily Dot, Kevin Collier focuses on privacy, cybersecurity, and issues of importance to the open internet. Since leaving the Daily Dot in March 2016, he has served as a reporter for Vocativ and a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed.