The company that fought the FBI in your name and won

    • By Amir Bkr

The company that fought the FBI in your name and won

A New York federal district court has ordered the FBI to lift a surveillance gag order that was imposed on a business man under the heavily abused Patriot Act. Nicholas Merrill spent 11 years challenging its constitutionality.

The case concerns the FBI sending a National Security Letter (NSL) to Merrill, who ran an internet service company, which demanded access to his customer’s records. Under the Patriot Act, the recipient of an NSL is prohibited from mentioning the letter, the contents of the letter and what it seeks because of the possible threat to an investigation.

In Merrill’s case, the gag order was imposed by the FBI in 2004.

The court’s latest ruling agreed with Merrill that the government had violated his constitutional rights and marked the first time that a gag order has been lifted since the Patriot Act vastly expanded the FBI’s authority for warrantless spying in 2001.

“Courts cannot, consistent with the First Amendment, simply cannot accept the Government’s assertions that disclosure would … create a (public) risk,” said Judge Victor Marrero in his ruling, according to the Intercept.

The court’s order goes into effect in 90 days, giving the US government time to appeal its decision. Merrill remains under the gag for that period.

Earlier this year, Merrill was granted permission to inform his customers that he had been targeted by the federal government. If the government appeal doesn’t go ahead, he will also be free to disclose which records the FBI stole from him.

Under the Patriot Act, Congress granted the FBI, National Security Agency and others the authority to forcibly take phone and email records, but not their contents, from service providers, email services and social networks such as Facebook.

Specifically, a national security letter served on internet companies allowed the FBI to obtain information such as a subscriber’s name, screen name or other online names; records identifying the addresses of electronic mail sent to and from the account; and records relating to merchandise orders/shipping information, but not message content and/or subject fields.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation believes that at least 60 such letters per day, every single day, have been sent since the Patriot Act was enacted in 2001. There is also a wide spread debate among advocates as to whether or not such letters and forced extractions are even legal, with or without a gagging order.

A.Bkr2@theinternational.org.uk