Facebook Releases 13 NSLs, Reports Another Big Increase In US Government Demands For Info


Facebook's new transparency report is up, and the company has released a baker's dozens of National Security Letters along with it. Thanks to the USA Freedom Act, companies finally have a way to challenge the indefinite gag orders the government attaches to its demands for user info -- a process it deploys thousands of times a year without having to run anything by a judge.

NSLs are gifts the FBI gives itself. With these self-issued pieces of paper, the agency can demand internet platforms turn over info about targeted accounts. What it can actually demand is fairly limited, although there appears to be no limit to the number of accounts the FBI can target with a single NSL. Many of the NSLs in this batch [PDF] cleared for release ask for data on multiple Facebook and Instagram users.

Only one of the released NSLs still carries the pre-Freedom Act boilerplate: the one that demands tons of info the DOJ's own internal legal guidance says the FBI can't ask for. That NSL contains a long list of things the FBI chose to consider "phone billing records" before being steered back to reality by legislation and leaked documents.

  • Subscriber name and related subscriber information

  • Account number(s)

  • Date the account opened or closed

  • Physical and or postal addresses associated with the account

  • Subscriber day/evening telephone numbers

  • Screen names or other on-line names associated with the account

  • All billing and method of payment related to the account including alternative billed numbers or calling cards

  • All e-mail addresses associated with the account to include any and all of the above information for any secondary or additional e-mail addresses and/or user names identified by you as belonging to the targeted account in this letter

  • Internet Protocol (IP) addresses assigned to this account and related e-mail accounts

  • Uniform Resource Locator (URL) assigned to the account

  • Plain old telephone(s) (POTS), ISDN circuit(s), Voice over internet protocol (VOIP), Cable modem service, Internet cable service, Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) asymmetrical/symmetrical relating to this account

  • The names of any and all upstream and providers facilitating this account's communications

The post-USA Freedom Act NSLs all carry identical demands for user info, which is far more limited than what's contained in this 2014 artifact.

[N]ame, addresss, length of service, and electronic communications transactional records…

The reason we're even seeing these NSLs published can be tied directly to the Snowden leaks, which led to the modification of several secretive government programs and policies with the USA Freedom Act. While these modifications may have altered how the government demands data and communications, it hasn't really slowed the government's roll. As Zack Whittaker notes for TechCrunch, the government is demanding more from Facebook more often.

The U.S. government’s demands for customer data went up by 30 percent, to 42,466 total requests, Facebook said, affecting 70,528 accounts. The company said that more than half included a non-disclosure clause that prevented the company from informing the user.


For its latest reporting period, Facebook also said that the number of other national security orders more than doubled year-over-year…

If it's data you're seeking, you go to where the data is. A platform with a billion users is a good start, especially when Instagram adds another 600 million user accounts to the mix. While it's good to see the uptick in demands is matched with an uptick in warrants and other orders that require the input of a court, the continued use of NSLs to acquire user info is concerning. These subpoenas -- issued and approved by the agency demanding user data -- more resemble fishing licenses than legal documents, which explains their continued popularity among FBI agents.

Filed Under: edward snowden, fbi, national security letter, nsl, transparency report
Companies: facebook

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Nov 2018 @ 1:01pm


    Where do you get the number 13? I count only 10 in the linked PDF, some with duplicate document identifiers.

    1. page 1 NSL-17-431971
    2. page 7 NSL-17-431971
    3. page 13 NSL-17-431971
    4. page 19 NSL-17-431971
    5. page 25 NSL-17-431971
    6. page 31 NSL-15-407597
    7. page 36 NSL-14-397935
    8. page 42 NSL-14-380840
    9. page 47 NSL-14-381391
    10. page 54 NSL-14-381751

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