US Court Says FBI Access To Private Data Unconstitutional

Tom Brewster is TechWeek Europe's Security Correspondent. He has also been named BT Information Security Journalist of the Year in 2012 and 2013.

In a landmark case, court says National Security Letters should be banned

Privacy activists are celebrating after a US court ruled FBI letters demanding citizens’ data went against the first amendment of America’s constitution.

It could be a landmark decision, given America’s laws, especially the Patriot Act, allow for plenty of law enforcement access to people’s information.

Setback for FBI

Online surveillance © - Fotolia.comThe decision was handed down after an unnamed telecommunications company, represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), contested a National Security Letter (NSL). Such letters are used by the FBI to demand customer data from communications providers without the need for court approval, and prevent any public disclosure that the demands were ever even sent.

It is thought San Francisco-based firm Credo Mobile is the telecoms company involved, though that is yet to be confirmed. The action started back in early 2011.

“We are very pleased that the court recognized the fatal constitutional shortcomings of the NSL statute,” said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Matt Zimmerman. “The government’s gags have truncated the public debate on these controversial surveillance tools. Our client looks forward to the day when it can publicly discuss its experience.”

“The First Amendment prevents the government from silencing people and stopping them from criticizing its use of executive surveillance power,” added EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn. “The NSL statute has long been a concern of many Americans, and this small step should help restore balance between liberty and security.”

Even though the name of the company involved was kept secret throughout proceedings, Credo, without admitting it was the relevant firm, praised the decision. “This ruling is the most significant court victory for our constitutional rights since the dark day when George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act,” said CEO Michael Kieschnick, in a statement sent to media.

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