The Federal Bureau of Investigation may have overstepped their constitutional bounds in the last couple of years. Social media providers are claiming the FBI issued directives demanding information on particular targets. The individuals in question had not been informed of the surveillance against them or made aware of their legal rights.
Twitter has published two separate letters from the FBI in the last two years, citing the unconstitutionality of the requests.
FBI Routinely Requests Data on Twitter Users
National Security Letters, or NSLs, are issued by law enforcement agencies to demand specific customer records from phone, internet or other communications companies. These letters also enjoined them from telling their targets that anyone had asked about their private online activity.
The Twitter Corporation has refused to comply with many of these orders, citing constitutional guarantees of the right to privacy. Instead, the social media platform chose to publish the letters containing these demands, stirring widespread public interest.
Public Discussion of NSLs
After the NSLs started attracting the wrath of the public, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a prominent digital privacy advocacy group, decided to step in. The EFF has highlighted the systemic nature of the NSL demands, being careful to note that the vast number of these letters go unnoticed because they are not published or publicized in any way.
An attorney that works with the EFF pointed out that a directive set down in 2008 by the Justice Department had specifically limited these NSLs to phone billing records. The Justice Department legal memorandum specifically states that the FBI, to remain within full compliance of the law and all Constitutional protections, must restrain themselves to those records alone.
The existence of this multiplicity of NSLs shows clear disregard for the memorandum and its conclusions. The EFF contends that these letters that Twitter and other social media providers have received are part of an enormous program overreach.
The EFF’s continued advocacy on this issue has been broadly influential, and upon their advice, the Twitter Corporation has filed a legal challenge to the program. Twitter wishes to assert their right to discuss the NSLs received by the company in public forums, and they want cleared guidelines on what information they must provide upon request.
The FBI Point of View
The FBI asserts that they are entirely within the law in their use of NSLs. They dispute the conclusion of the Justice Department memorandum and point to the long history of NSLs. After all, they have been authorized by the government since the 1970s Nixon era, though they were only rarely used until modern times.
Ever since 9/11, federal agencies have been doing their best to expand security and prevent a large-scale terrorist attack. The Patriot Act was passed in the furor shortly after the incident, and NSLs were broadly expanded in both purpose and strength.
Many of the previously held rights of privacy and notification have been swept away through modern events and their attendant legislation. The federal use of NSLs has grown until tens of thousands of them are issued every year. In the vast majority of cases, the targets of National Security Letters are never informed of the unwanted governmental attention or what the investigation found.
Legislative Solutions to FBI Privacy Overreach
Unfortunately, at this moment, there is little prospect for legislative relief. In fact, the tide appears to be turning against privacy rights. If legislators more amenable to the protection of privacy can be found, then the possibility of positive action exists. Until then, there is little to do but mount legal challenges to legislation and advocate for privacy in the personal sphere.
Image Source: Wikipedia