So, what exactly is a “national security letter?” You might be curious to know that it’s a tool which allows investigators to seek financial, phone, and internet data without a judge’s approval.
You also might be wondering exactly what kind of information the letters allow the government to get?
Well, that’s a secret.
The letters let the Federal Bureau of Investigation get information without going before a judge or grand jury if it’s relevant to a national security investigation. It’s nothing new – the letters have been around since the 1980s, but their use grew after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and passage of the USA Patriot Act. Hundreds of thousands of the requests are sent each year, but they are generally subject to strict secrecy orders.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Justice Department has revealed for the first time templates for each of the types of national security letters it sends – nine in all. Among other things, the letters show that the FBI is now informing people who receive the letters how they can challenge the documents in court.
But some key elements of the letters remain blocked from view – including lists of material the FBI says companies can send in response to the letter.
The most basic requests outlined in the templates are for name, address and length of service for either phone or Internet accounts. The broadest requests seek things such as entire credit reports, Internet activity logs, phone “billing records,” “financial records” or “electronic communications transactional records.”
The story provides two vastly different viewpoints.
First off, isn’t this supposed to be the ‘Land of the free’? Not exactly. When the FBI can watch your every movement, the TSA can frisk 80-year-old congressman, and the NSA can wiretap your phone without a reasonable suspicion, the basic values that the USA was founded on has turned into a joke.
On the other hand, if you’re not doing anything illegal or planning terrorist acts, what is there to be worried about? While the idea of having everything we do or say (including here) monitored by the federal government isn’t the most comforting, the fact is, there are some very bad people out there who would like to do very, very bad things to the country we live in. There’s no real reason to be particularly worried about some covert government agency knocking on your door if you haven’t threatened anybody. If you aren’t guilty of anything, you should be able to relax.
After all, isn’t that the whole point of the letter?