Justice Department Sues Telco For Daring To Challenge Its Secret Demands For Private Information
from the hubris dept
The US Justice Department really does seem to be completely drunk with power these days. We’ve written before about how the FBI is famous for abusing the powers of “National Security Letters” (NSLs) that allow them to demand information from service providers, financial firms and the like — with a built-in gag order. A few years ago, we wrote about an ISP, Calyx, which challenged an NSL it received, and had to fight the DOJ in complete secrecy for years, until the DOJ basically dropped the request and allowed Calyx’s Nicholas Merrill to go public with the details of the legal fight.
However, in news revealed this week, there is a second telco that isn’t just challenging an NSL — which is not only expressly allowed under the law, though now the DOJ is required to tell recipients this fact with the NSL — but also challenging the whole NSL process itself. In response, amazingly, the Justice Department sued the telco, claiming that it failed to hand over the information requested in the NSL, as required by law. There’s no way to look at this other than as a vindictive move by the DOJ.
Instead of responding directly to that challenge and filing a motion to compel compliance in the way the Justice Department has responded to past challenges, government attorneys instead filed a lawsuit against the telecom, arguing that by refusing to comply with the NSL and hand over the information it was requesting, the telecom was violating the law, since it was “interfer[ing] with the United States’ vindication of its sovereign interests in law enforcement, counterintelligence, and protecting national security.”
They did this, even though courts have allowed recipients who challenge an NSL to withhold government-requested data until the court compels them to hand it over. The Justice Department argued in its lawsuit that recipients cannot use their legal right to challenge an individual NSL to contest the fundamental NSL law itself.
All of this came out this week after it having been secret for some time, thanks in part to the EFF’s efforts to get some of the information public. The Wall Street Journal appears to have identified the telco in question as Credo, a small Northern California company.
The DOJ’s response to the challenge — suing the telco — is incredibly aggressive, and is clearly designed to create a massive chilling effect for any other organization who might challenge an NSL, despite the clear legality of issuing such a challenge. This kind of response from the DOJ, however, is par for the course these days. It’s been quite aggressive in trying to silence those who criticize its efforts, and this is just the latest example. While the excellent Wired article linked above finds it surprising that the government allowed the evidence of this DOJ lawsuit to become public, I don’t think it’s that surprising. If the goal is to create chilling effects and intimidate lots of others into not challenging NSLs, then letting it be known that you sued a telco who tried would certainly get the job done.