In the time after the Sept. 11 attacks, a hasty bill was passed, known as the USA Patriot Act, which opened all kinds of capabilities for the government to spy on its citizens without having to worry about that pesky Constitution. One of the easy ways of collecting information about people is with national security letters. These letters come from the FBI, asking for certain information with a few caveats: they require no judicial review and the recipients are not allowed to talk about the request.
Google has received 19 of these letters and refused to respond positively to any of the requests. In fact, Google filed suit against the federal government, claiming that the requests are unnecessary and unconstitutional. Last week U.S. District Court Judge Susan Illston ordered Google to comply unless it can prove that the letters were sent without proper process. Google can still appeal the ruling, but has had no comment on the matter.
Illston currently believes that 2 of the letters could have been processed incorrectly, but currently believes that the other 17 are proper. Unfortunately the ruling and suit did not indicate what kinds of information the government was seeking, but with services like Google Search and Gmail being a big part of many people's lives, there is a lot of information about a lot of people that could be at jeopardy here.
This ruling comes as a bit of a surprise based on a previous ruling from Illston in March. In a case between the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the FBI, Illston ruled that the demand that recipients cannot speak of the request was unconstitutional, violating free speech rights. Kurt Opsah, counsel for the EFF, said of the ruling,
We are disappointed that the same judge who declared these letters unconstitutional is now requiring compliance with them.
This trend of the government asking for information without judicial involvement is a frightening one, but it is nice to see someone fighting against it, even if it is surprisingly from Google.