FBI Lifts Gag Order On NSL Issued To Google… Which Doesn't Have Much To Say About It

from the THIS-JUST-IN:-mumblemumble...gag-order...mumble dept

The government’s embrace of transparency — an uncomfortable hug forced on it like a drunken uncle at a wedding reception by the passage of the USA Freedom Act — has paid off for a local computer concern. Google is now able to speak in non-specifics about one (1) National Security Letter it has received.

The national security letter issued to Google was mentioned without fanfare in Google’s latest bi-annual transparency report, which includes information on government requests for data the company received from around the world in the first half of 2016.

Google received the secret subpoena in first half of 2015, according to the report.

Here’s the original wording from the report, which follows actual specifics about new countries Google can add to the list of entities demanding user info from it (Algeria, Belarus, Cayman Islands, El Salvador, Fiji, and Saudi Arabia):

[P]ursuant to the USA Freedom Act, the FBI lifted a gag restriction on an NSL issued in the second half of 2015.

The law requires the FBI to “periodically” review its NSL-related gag orders to see whether the restriction still needs to be in effect. Theoretically, the gag order should be lifted three years after the NSL is issued or the investigation concludes, whichever comes first. Theoretically. I guess we’ll see if the gag order floodgates begin opening in 2019.

In addition to finally being able to barely talk about it, Google was also able to move the transparency dial forward exactly one click.

To reflect this, we have updated the range of NSLs received in that period — July to December 2015 — from 0-499 to 1-499.

What Google hasn’t done is publish the request itself, something both Yahoo and Signal did once given the green light by the feds. It cited no reasons for withholding the contents. However, it may be unable to fully publish the letter, despite the lifting of the gag order, as The Intercept’s Jenna McLaughlin points out.

It’s… unclear why Google wouldn’t immediately publish the document — unless the gag is only partially lifted, or the company is involved in ongoing litigation to challenge the order, neither of which were cited as reasons for holding it back.

In other news, Google saw an increase in FISA-ordered requests for user info, bumping it up by about 5,000 total accounts as compared to the previous reporting period.

Hopefully, Google’s ungagged-but-still-secret NSL won’t stay secret for much longer. It would be troubling if this were to become Google’s standard policy — the announcement of gag order removals but with no further details forthcoming. Not much “transparency” in the Transparency Report, unfortunately… not if that’s how it’s going to be handled.

True, much of the opacity is still the government’s fault: the not-at-all-useful “banding” that makes NSL numbers impossible to parse (1-499 could mean one NSL… or almost 500 in one reporting period), the gag orders that remain in place forever, etc. But private companies shouldn’t take their cues from naturally-secretive government agencies. They’re pretty much all we have to provide us with an outside, somewhat unrestricted measure of the government’s surveillance efforts.

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Comments on “FBI Lifts Gag Order On NSL Issued To Google… Which Doesn't Have Much To Say About It”

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Anonymous Coward says:


The 1st Amendment makes it clear that under no circumstance that the Government or any of its agencies and prevent anyone from going to the press. The 1st does nor provide an exception for National Security or anything of the sort.

As a serious question, is it considered BIAS to constantly remind the people that gag orders are in fact completely unconstitutional regardless of what member of government issues them?

DannyB (profile) says:


Is it BIAS to remind people that the sun rises in the East instead of the West? It would seem that the obsession with this concept, and lack of open mindedness on the issue would be a strong indicator of bias.

Don’t focus on observational evidence. Focus on the controversy about which direction the sun rises.

If you’ve flipped a coin hundreds of billions of times (4 billion years * 365), and it has always come up West; it doesn’t mean that the coin toss won’t land on East tomorrow morning.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: NSL

If I understand you correctly you just accused TD of being a pseudo-supporter of the 1st Amendment. Of course this would not be a completely of base accusation taking the whole Redskins trademark issue into consideration.

Care to weigh in on this one Mike or am I missing what this guy meant? The real controversy here is not whether or not that the government is being transparent in accordance with the “Freedom Act”, but Government shitting straight on the 1st Amendment without even a single call out on it from TD or other members of the Press?

How far have we fallen that what is unconstitutional has become so common place that it is not even worthy of mention any more?

Whatever (profile) says:

Re: Google is telling us something.

Google is playing a game here. They are playing the “scary government” card, and letting the imaginations of every conspiracy theorist go wild.

With the gag order lifted, Google could (and probably should have) already released this document to the public. But in doing so, they would likely reveal how banal it really is, likely an information request (gmail, probably) related to a recent bomber or “domestic terrorist” and nothing much more. No big brother looking over everyone’s shoulder or anything.

The mystery of “big governement gagged us” is way better than “government quietly asked for emails related to a terror suspect”. Google knows that. Google likes it when you wear Google logo tin foil hats.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Google is telling us something.

The mystery of “big governement gagged us” is way better than “government quietly asked for emails related to a terror suspect”.

You know what would really cut down on that ‘mystery’? If the government didn’t go around issuing gag orders or set absurd limits on what companies could say when they were allowed to say anything at all. Insisting that companies can only report ranges of ‘requests’ rather than actual numbers, with the ranges so wide they’re by design useless at showing the scope of what’s being ‘asked’ for. Preventing companies and/or individuals from so much as mentioning the gag orders, to the extent that they can’t even correct lies or ‘least untruthful statements’ regarding them.

You want to blame someone for the tin-foil hats blame the government for their ridiculous demands for secrecy and silence. Some transparency could do worlds of good but they’re clearly not interested in providing or allowing it.

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