Once Again, FBI Caught Breaking The Law In Gathering Phone Call Info; But Real Issue Is Why Telcos Let Them

from the surprise-surprise dept

A few years back, we found out that the FBI regularly violated the Patriot Act, issuing "National Security Letters" to access information that they had no right to access. So it should come as no surprise that during that same period, the FBI was also regularly violating the law to get phone call records without following the proper procedures, even beyond the problem with the NSLs. In fact, it appears the FBI may have violated the law in about half of all of these cases. Basically, it sounds like the FBI just went to phone companies, said the magic word ("terrorism!!") and the phone companies just handed over records -- even without using NSLs, but instead using an "exigent circumstances letter," which could be used even more easily than an NSL, but which required an NSL to follow it up eventually. The FBI is now basically admitting to screwing up and that using these "ECLs" without followup NSLs almost certainly violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. The FBI's excuse? They're claiming that the process was "good-hearted but not well-thought-out." Doesn't that make you feel better?

The story heads into Keystone Kops territory, as some in the FBI pushed for actually following up the ECLs with real NSLs, but the FBI was pretty slow. Eventually, someone signed a "blanket NSL" supposedly to cover all of the previous ECLs that never had a followup NSL -- except the guy who signed the blanket NSL later claimed that he couldn't recall ever signing anything, and insisted that NSLs should be for specific cases only. Oops.

Of course, lost in all of the attention over the FBI's process is the rather serious unanswered question of why the telcos didn't seem to push back when handed a bogus demand to hand over records that did not match the official process and violated the law. Shouldn't the telcos have some responsibility for actually making sure that a random FBI agent yelling "terrorism" has some sort of official basis to get information out of the them?

Filed Under: ecpa, exigent circumstances letters, fbi, national security letters, phone records, privacy, surveillance, telcos
Companies: fbi

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  1. identicon
    Former consultant, 28 May 2011 @ 5:25am

    Re: Fairly obvious

    >stand up for your users, who already hate you and probably won't notice anyway.

    Naccio complained, but only AFTER his indictment. He was a former AT&T exec who was well trained in their code of conduct. At every one of these companies, there was a human responsible for ensuring that legal processes were followed. Why wouldn't they refer these dubious letters to the legal department for an opinion. There HAS to be a paper trail here.

    The best "whistleblower" protection there is, is a free (non-corporate) press, and an informed and active public.

    "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance"

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