Telecom firm says "No" to FBI surveillance demands

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Mobile, Privacy

Woman using phone in shadows. Image from ShutterstockA minor miracle occurred early last year when the FBI tried to shake down a phone company for customer records during an investigation: the company said no.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the affair has been dragged to court and is tightly cloaked in secrecy.

The phone company's lawyer declined to identify which phone company he's representing, while the telecom employee who received the FBI's national security letter (NSL) demanding customer records has been legally barred from acknowledging either the resulting court case or the letter's existence to just about anyone beyond the company's lawyers.

When the phone company received the NSL early last year, it chose to fight it in court.

That right there is just about unheard of.

The US government adores using the letters, and it's taking an increasing shine to similar Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) applications, which mostly request electronic surveillance.

NSLs, on the other hand, are a type of subpoena that requires neither a judge's oversight nor even probable cause.

What's particularly appealing about NSLs, from a surveillance perspective, is that they come with their own cloaking devices in the form of gag orders that prevent letter recipients from disclosing that the letter was ever issued.

As Wired reported in May, there have been only four challenges to the gag order part of NSLs since 2009, when a court mandated that the FBI tell recipients that they had a right to resist the gag.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) reports that in 2011, the FBI sent 16,511 NSLs for information pertaining to 7,201 people.

Office of the Inspector GeneralA 2006 Justice Department report [PDF] found that the FBI sent 192,499 NSL requests between 2003 and 2006, the vast majority of which went uncontested.

When the anonymous phone company took the NSL to court early last year, the US Department of Justice turned around and counter-filed, claiming that the company's refusal to hand over its files amounted to interfering "with the United States' sovereign interests" in national security, according to the WSJ.

After some digging through court papers, calling likely telecoms and cross-referencing Federal Communications Commission records of telecom firms, the WSJ is hypothesizing that the "just say no to NSLs" telecom is Working Assets Inc., which runs a San Francisco-based telecom subsidiary called Credo and which devotes part of its revenues to liberal causes.

Credo CEO Michael Kieschnick would neither confirm nor deny to the WSJ that his company was involved in the case, but the statement he gave regarding his firm's attitude toward these types of government requests is telling:

"There is a tension between privacy and the legitimate security needs of the country. We think it is best to resolve this through grand jury or judicial oversight."

The telecom - be it Credo or some other company - is fighting the NSLs on constitutional grounds (here are the court papers [PDF]), arguing that the gag orders improperly restrain speech without a judge's authorization.

Court documents

For its part, the FBI maintains that NSL secrecy is necessary to avoid tipping off potential terrorists.

Credo telecom firmFor my part, just the notion of Credo possibly being the telecom who said "No" spikes my interest in the company.

According to its site, in 2011 the company fought for Medicare, Planned Parenthood, marriage equality, workers’ rights, environmental protection, and prosecution of Wall Street crimes.

This is no plug, paid or unpaid, for Credo. But it's interesting to note that liberal causes like these tend to provoke sharp interest from law enforcement bodies.

When those law enforcement bodies come knocking with NSLs, looking to pore over customer activities without a judge's approval, it's good to know that even a handful of companies don't roll over and show the government their tender underbellies.

Kudos, anonymous telecom. Thanks for kicking up some dust over these data demands.

As for the majority of companies that do comply without a fight, please remember that you have the right to say no.

You have the right to protect your customers from government prying, you have the right to demand the freedom to inform your customers of such prying, and you have the right to force the government into court to fight over doing that prying.

Young woman using telephone image, courtesy of Shutterstock.

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9 Responses to Telecom firm says "No" to FBI surveillance demands

  1. sumanth · 738 days ago

    It is nice to know there are still some people who are fighting to make US a police state under the garb of fighting terrorism.

  2. David Brooks · 738 days ago

    911 post fears sure have it's downsides now...seem to be multiplying (government wise)...and yes...we can "Just SAY NO"...and NEED TO! great article...

  3. Faz · 738 days ago

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention. Good David and Goliath story.

  4. Jez Smits · 738 days ago

    Their is a law being passed in the UK making it mandatory for phone companies to do this. The bill would force telecoms companies to store details of internet use for a year to help combat crime.

  5. Marge · 738 days ago

    I wish I knew who had the cojones to stand up to FBI and protest the fear mongering and general stupidity. I'd move my phone service to them in a heartbeat.

    • Lisa Vaas · 737 days ago

      I'm with you. I'm inclined to think it's Working Assets/Credo. Sounds like something they'd do.

  6. As a retired police officer, I don't see much that would cause a problem to take it to a judge. All of these intrusions should be over seen by a judge. What's wrong with taking it to a judge, unless you want to do something subversive or the shotgun approach?

  7. Snert · 738 days ago

    If and when you find out who this is, let us know, please.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.