The lifting of an 11-year-old gag-order this week has confirmed that federal investigators have compelled Internet companies to cough up their customers’ browsing history, online records and other personal information without ever applying for a warrant.
Nick Merrill previously operated a now-defunct Internet Service Provider (ISP), Calyx Internet Access, and since February 2004 has found himself in and out of federal courthouses arguing over a request for user data he received in the form of a National Security Letter, or NSL.
The FBI issued more than 400,000 NSLs between 2003 and 2011, the Justice Department’s inspector general determined last year. Those letters are often issued to ISPs, banks and other companies that keep electronic records in order for authorities to find out information pursuant to criminal and counterterrorism investigations.
Federal agents needn’t obtain search warrants before conducting that sort of electronic surveillance, however, and the routine filing of gag-orders alongside NSLs have more often than not forced recipients to stay mum. Indeed, such was the case with respect to the inquiry Mr. Merrill landed in the center of more than a decade ago — up until Monday, when the order was lifted and court filings made public for the first time.