For years, we've talked about how the Justice Department has massively abused
the "National Security Letters" (NSLs) process that lets it seek information from third parties without judicial oversight. At least with FBI NSLs, the FBI is required to release some (though not all) info on how they're used, which is why we have some indication of how widely they're abused. However, as Dave Kravets recently detailed in a fantastic article at Wired.com, the use of "administrative subpoenas" (NSLs are a form of administrative subpoena) allowing government officials to issue mandatory subpoenas to third parties with no oversight
at all has become quite widespread
. Even worse: most government agencies don't seem to have any interest in revealing any data about them. In other words, if you thought the FBI was abusing NSLs, you should probably be even more concerned about some of these others administrative subpoenas.
Meet the administrative subpoena (.pdf): With a federal official’s signature, banks, hospitals, bookstores, telecommunications companies and even utilities and internet service providers — virtually all businesses — are required to hand over sensitive data on individuals or corporations, as long as a government agent declares the information is relevant to an investigation. Via a wide range of laws, Congress has authorized the government to bypass the Fourth Amendment — the constitutional guard against unreasonable searches and seizures that requires a probable-cause warrant signed by a judge.
In fact, there are roughly 335 federal statutes on the books (.pdf) passed by Congress giving dozens upon dozens of federal agencies the power of the administrative subpoena, according to interviews and government reports. (.pdf)
It's worth reading Kravets' full article, even if it is depressing. What amazes me is that we let this kind of stuff continue unabated. We've seen increasing surveillance and abuse over the years, but it seems that any time people push back on these processes, they're brushed off because "OMG!Terrorists!" or something along those lines. It's sad that we, as a country, seem so accepting of the government taking away basic Constitutional rights if it just screams something about terrorists and crime.