Documents Show The FBI Is Targeting Financial Institutions, Credit Reporting Agencies, And Universities With NSLs

from the third-parties-are-the-best-parties dept

We've written several times before about the FBI and its unnatural love for National Security Letters. NSLs make the FBI tick. They're super handy, too. The FBI issues them to itself and then hands them to a variety of third parties, eliminating any judicial oversight. The fact that third parties are recipients make the Fourth Amendment (mostly) irrelevant. These work so well the FBI has used NSLs to get info the FISA court has already said it can't have.

Thanks to some modifications to NSLs by the USA Freedom Act, we're finally seeing recipients posting NSLs they've received. NSLs used to come with "forever" gag orders, preventing recipients from discussing them, much less posting the documents themselves. The new law, along with a decision from the DC Circuit Court, requires the FBI to periodically review its NSLs and decide whether the gag orders are still justified. Companies are also now allowed to demand gag order reviews themselves, rather than wait three years for the FBI to get around to it.

The end result has been the release of several un-gagged NSLs by tech companies like Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Automattic. A FOIA lawsuit by the EFF has resulted in the largest NSL document dump to date. The released files were shared with the New York Times (which, in turn, is sharing the documents with everyone else), showing that NSLs are not just limited to tech companies and service providers. They also target any entity that might conceivably have third-party records on hand.

The F.B.I. has used secret subpoenas to obtain personal data from far more companies than previously disclosed, newly released documents show.

The requests, which the F.B.I. says are critical to its counterterrorism efforts, have raised privacy concerns for years but have been associated mainly with tech companies. Now, records show how far beyond Silicon Valley the practice extends — encompassing scores of banks, credit agencies, cellphone carriers and even universities.

While many tech companies are proactively posting un-gagged NSLs, most of the other recipients listed here haven't felt obligated to engage in transparency. Banks, credit agencies (Equifax, TransUnion, etc.), universities, and cable providers have not been publishing the NSLs green-lighted by the FBI's review process. What's included in the 1,000+ pages released to the EFF is hundreds of letters from the FBI to third party NSL recipients informing them they can publish the cleared NSLs. Many of these entities haven't.

What isn't in this stack of PDF pages are the NSLs themselves. The FBI may have cleared them for publication, but it's up to the recipients to actually publish them. If these entities aren't going to take this step, it really doesn't matter that gag orders have been lifted. Maybe the targeted customers have been informed of the FBI's interest in them. Maybe not. But the general public isn't being served by entities that are more than happy to gather voluminous amounts of information about their customers (and students) but unwilling to discuss how often they turn over that information to the federal government.

The documents also show that the FBI's review process isn't really resulting in that much more transparency. Roughly 750 letters were released to the EFF. That's a very small percentage of the NSLs whose gag orders were reviewed by the agency.

According to the new documents, the F.B.I. evaluated 11,874 orders between early 2016, when the rules went into effect, and September 2017, when the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, requested the information.

The release looks like a generous document dump by the FBI, but only if all context is removed. That's some of it right there: the 6% rate of return. The letters stating the FBI is fine with recipients discussing NSLs was only turned over to the EFF after a FOIA lawsuit. Finally, the NSLs we've seen published to date are the result of law that was passed in response to leaked documents that exposed the NSA and FBI's incredible surveillance powers… and how often they've abused these authorities. The government isn't being any more transparent. It's just unable to avail itself of as much opacity as it used to.

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Filed Under: credit agencies, fbi, financial firms, gag order, national security letters, nsl, secrecy, universities

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  • identicon
    Personanongrata, 1 Oct 2019 @ 1:26pm

    Expediency is not Justice

    Documents Show The FBI Is Targeting Financial Institutions, Credit Reporting Agencies, And Universities With NSLs

    National Security Letters (NSL) have zero basis in constitutional law.

    There is no judicial oversight required all an FBI agent need do is print out the letter and deliver.

    The best data available shows that between 2004 - 2016 FBI disseminated almost 200,000 NSL's concerning US persons and businesses.

    Are there 200,000 spies/terrorists hiding amongst us that we need destroy the constitution so we can protect ourselves?


    Does FBI abuse the extra-constitutional authority it was illegally granted by their co-conspirators in congress at the expense of all US persons/businesses?

    NSL's have less than zero to do with justice and only serve as a politically expedient means for the government to conduct and hide baseless investigations (ie fishing expeditions) that would normally be terminated due to lack of evidence.

    Rule of Law:

    If there is evidence of a crime file an affidavit with a judge or magistrate. If the affidavit has merit the court will approve a search warrant.

    Rule of Man:

    If you have no evidence of a crime government agents can sign off on their own warrant thus circumventing judicial oversight and constitutional protections to go off on a "fishing expedition" in search of evidence.

    The US governments claim that NSL's serve a pressing need is completely de-bunked by the fact that over 2,900 wire taps were authorized in 2018 while only 2 wire taps were rejected - .0005% of all requests.

    The point is search warrants are very easy for law enforcement to obtain so there is absolutely zero need for the use of clearly unconstitutional NSL's.

    The US Constitution was not authored to empower government but to ensure the inherent rights of all persons are protected from tyranny.

    Legitimate government power is derived solely from the consent of the governed. Once consent of the governed has been revoked the government becomes illegitimate.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      JdL (profile), 1 Oct 2019 @ 2:44pm

      Re: Expediency is not Justice

      Excellent comment. I'm gonna quibble with your math, though: 2 of 2900 is not .0005%. It's about .07%, still ridiculously small, of course.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 2 Oct 2019 @ 1:02am

        Re: Re: Expediency is not Justice

        If this is ridiculously small, why do you think vaccines are going to kill everyone when a ridiculously small fraction of them trigger allergies?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Oct 2019 @ 2:15pm

    The most transparent administration in history.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Oct 2019 @ 2:42pm

    Almost as if the FBI were doing its own thing

    Since it is printing out letters created by itself with no legal justification, I would laugh my ass off if they were dissolved as an agency over their self increase in authority.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    anon, 1 Oct 2019 @ 3:20pm


    I wonder if an ammendment to the law needs to be passed that adds the reviewer and review date to each letter. This would force them to actually review them(perhaps) and make it much more likely for them to try and reduce the number to those that actually require continued secrecy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Glenn, 1 Oct 2019 @ 9:55pm

    Justice is blind. And now it's gagged. Next, ears are stoppered. Those scales are tipping...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 2 Oct 2019 @ 3:00am

    If you are against this you hate America...
    1 soundbite from 1 talking head and every single Congresscritter tells us to bend over and accept it.

    For all of the expansive, costly, and mostly useless projects & programs we have nothing to show for it beyond demands for more overreach.

    We deserve better.
    We deserve laws & rules based on solid science & solid evidence.
    We deserve to have all of the rights they claim citizens have, not having them chipped away.
    We deserve that those defending us play by the rules & not be enabled by courts deciding that the target was "bad" enough to not deserve protection from existing laws.

    We can't comment on these ongoing investigations, blah blah blah.
    How about a list of actual terror plots stopped, that were NOT driven by a CI roping some morons into a trap.
    We fear all of these outside threats while they are STILL trying to figure out if these 12 burned houses of worship might be a pattern as they walk past the burned wooden crosses put on the lawn & the swastikas spray painted everywhere.

    We can no longer stay the course & keep assuming 1 more round of rights limited/removed will FINALLY keep us safe, there is more then enough evidence everything they have done in the name of our safety haven't resulted in reasonable returns on the investment.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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