Google Reveals Some Data About National Security Letters, May Have Exposed DOJ Duplicity

from the transparency... dept

We've talked for years about the government's use of "national security letters" or NSLs, which are effectively a way for law enforcement types to seek information with less oversight than a subpoena, and which usually come with a very, very extreme gag order attached. Despite the fact that, by their own admission, law enforcement has regularly and systematically abused this tool, they are still widely used and there has been little effort to block the abuses. Google's latest transparency report is seeking to reveal some data about the NSLs it has received, but without revealing too much. Rather than directly revealing how many NSLs it has received, it is posting ranges (in bunches of 1,000) -- and apparently the company got at least some level of approval from the government to do this ("We're thankful to U.S. government officials for working with us").

By itself, the data doesn't seem that enlightening.
However, there is some useful information you can pick out of there, and who better to pick out that info that Julian Sanchez, who has followed this issue closely. He's found that you can actually tease out some useful info even with those broad ranges.

It's illuminating to compare the minimum number of users affected by NSLs each year to the numbers we find in the government's official annual reports. In 2011—the last year for which we have a tally—the Justice Department acknowledged issuing 16,511 NSLs seeking information about U.S. persons, with a total of 7,201 Americans' information thus obtained. That's actually down from a staggering 14,212 Americans whose information DOJ reported obtaining via NSL the previous year. Remember, this total includes National Security Letters issued not just to all telecommunications providers—including online services like Google, broadband Internet companies, and cell phone carriers—but also "financial institutions," which are defined broadly to include a vast array of businesses beyond such obvious candidates as banks and credit card companies.

What ought to leap out at you here is the magnitude of Google's tally relative to that total: They got requests affecting at least 1,000 users in a year when DOJ reports just over 7,000 Americans affected by all NSLs—and it seems impossible that Google could account for anywhere remotely near a seventh of all NSL requests. Google, of course, is not limiting their tally to requests for information about Americans, which may explain part of the gap—but we know that, at least of a few years ago, the substantial majority of NSLs targeted Americans, and the proportion of the total targeting Americans was increasing year after year. As of 2006, for instance, 57 percent of NSL requests were for information about U.S. persons. So even if we reduce Google's minimum proportionately, that seems awfully high.

Sanchez wonders if the DOJ is effectively under-counting how many NSLs it uses by pretending that some of the NSLs they issue shouldn't count towards its official tally of NSLs.
There's a simple enough explanation for this apparent discrepancy: The numbers DOJ reports each year explicitly exclude NSL requests for “basic subscriber information,” meaning the “name, address, and length of service” associated with an account, and only count more expansive requests that also demand more detailed “electronic communications transactional records” that are “parallel to” the “toll billing records” maintained by traditional phone companies.
That would mean that the NSL number that the DOJ reports is not particularly accurate, and that the FBI really issues a hell of a lot more NSLs (not so). Shocking reveal of the day: the DOJ may not be entirely forthright about how often it's spying on Americans using a widely abused process with little oversight.


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    identicon
    out_of_the_blue, Mar 7th, 2013 @ 4:31pm

    This limited hang-out doesn't mean Google can be trusted.

    They position Google as champion of freedom, but it's part of the NSA. These little revelations -- that are obvious -- are just to enhance its credibility. Meanwhile, EVERY DAY, Google is spying on and tracking YOU, and everyone else.

     

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      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Mar 7th, 2013 @ 4:54pm

      Re: This limited hang-out doesn't mean Google can be trusted.

      How much does the tinfoil industry pay you?

       

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        identicon
        Anonymous Coward, Mar 7th, 2013 @ 6:02pm

        Re: Re: This limited hang-out doesn't mean Google can be trusted.

        OOTB is probably right about that one

         

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        Anonymous Coward, Mar 7th, 2013 @ 6:14pm

        Re: Re: This limited hang-out doesn't mean Google can be trusted.

        Honestly, OOTB has a point, and it's not just Google. While I disagree with him about working for the NSA, advertizing is a big business. Targeted ads, like with Amazaon, Google, and others is getting rather creepy. I just purchased a MacBook Pro from Amazon and a Synology from NewEgg, and I've been littered with ads since those purchases toward things like HardDrives and Apple products. I don't think it's some conspiracy, but the tracking of purchases is something that has come into the realm of searching a library member of their borrowing habits, and that is the point that worries me.

         

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          Anonymous Coward, Mar 7th, 2013 @ 7:18pm

          Re: Re: Re: This limited hang-out doesn't mean Google can be trusted.

          Right, I agree, but if you think Google is an NSA operation you have lost your mind (or never had one).

           

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            identicon
            Anonymous Coward, Mar 7th, 2013 @ 11:41pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: This limited hang-out doesn't mean Google can be trusted.

            Actually, it would simply mean that we were in an RPG with shitty PC rules.

             

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            Jay (profile), Mar 8th, 2013 @ 1:28am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: This limited hang-out doesn't mean Google can be trusted.

            Google and the NSA have been working together since 2007 and refuse to divulge information about the relationship.

            I thought more people would understand that Google giving people a unique identifying cookie made it easier to spy on citizens for a government that doesn't need that power.

             

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      rummeltje, Mar 8th, 2013 @ 6:12am

      Re: This limited hang-out doesn't mean Google can be trusted.

      O wow, I thought I'd never see the day that I'd give credit to one of the trolls, but ..... here that day is.
      out_of_the_blue is fully correct to not trust google at all.
      "insightfull" button pressed.

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 7th, 2013 @ 5:04pm

    Is there some surprise in this idea that the government is not passing out accurate numbers?

    You can go elsewhere and readily find examples of the government cheating on numbers to make things sound better. The first two that come to mind is unemployment figures, where if you're unemployed over a year and quit looking, magically you are no longer unemployed. Or you could look at the mystical moving measuring stick that is used to figure out inflation. That measuring stick has changed at least 6 times but the older figures are never re-adjusted to take into account the newest method. Doing it that way gives you the impression when you look at this unadjusted figures by graph that it's a steady slow sloping rise. That's just figures that everyone gets to look at.

    When you throw in that no one can talk about it because of the NSLs. That no judge or court is overseeing the real need to break into private records, it leaves it wide open to abuse. Small wonder the figures aren't even in the ball park. Every time there has been a check on if the system has been used legally, it always comes up with multiple violations that take advantage of this.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 7th, 2013 @ 5:19pm

    DOJ is counting Americans. Google is counting user accounts. The FBI frequently demands account info on four or five accounts all associated with the same person.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 7th, 2013 @ 5:20pm

    DOJ Duplicitous? No say it isn't so.

     

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    Ninja (profile), Mar 8th, 2013 @ 2:46am

    We should start sharing our daily activities with the NSA/DOJ/whoever. They seem to like knowing petty details. You know like that Canadian debacle with mr Toews? These 3 letter agencies seem to feel so lonely they need to get in touch with thousands of people every month...

     

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    toyotabedzrock (profile), Mar 9th, 2013 @ 8:44am

    big google

    Google is pretty big.

    The number of NSL to users affected is the opposite to the ratio the DOJ reports.

     

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