Google Publishes Previously Secret FBI Letters

John Lister's picture

Google has published eight letters sent by the FBI demanding details about its users. Normally the company isn't allowed to even acknowledge the letters exist.

The letters, known as National Security Letters, are formal demands from the FBI for details about users - in this case, Google users. The letters are controversial for two reasons; first, the demands can be made without a specific search order, something that raises constitutional issues. The second is that Google isn't normally allowed to tell the user about the demand. While it's been argued that doing so may tip off a suspect, there's also an argument that it violates the right of citizens to know when their property - in this case their data - is being searched.

The publication of the letters is the first time Google has taken advantage of the USA Freedom Act, passed last year. Among other measures, the act means the FBI and other agencies can no longer demand that companies keep the letters secret indefinitely.

Gagging Orders Lifted

Under the new rules, the Department of Justice must regularly review the gagging orders and remove them if they are no longer relevant. That is what has happened with the eight letters now published. (Source:

Google has published the letters with only a few pieces of information blacked out, such as the personal contact details of the FBI agents concerned, the Google staffers who received the letters, and the specific Google accounts the letters affect. It's also contacted the people holding the accounts to let them know about the letters.

For the most part, the letters appear relatively innocuous. Six of the eight ask only for any name or address Google has for the person who operates the account in question, along with details of how long the account has been active.

Incriminating Letters Could Still Be Secret

In two cases, the letters also ask for "electronic communications transactional records". This means details about when and who the user exchanged messages or emails with, but not the content of the messages themselves. It appears Google may also have been required to hand over details of the specific IP address (the approximate location of the computer and/or Internet provider) from which the messages were sent. (Source:

These letters aren't necessarily representative, however. It's widely suspected that some national security letters ask for more detail, such as the content of messages or the websites visited by a user. However, the likelihood is that such letters won't be among the ones for which the gagging order is lifted.

What's Your Opinion?

Are you surprised the letters ask for such little detail? Should the FBI be allowed to force companies to keep such letters secret in all cases, only in exceptional circumstances, or never at all? What information is reasonable for the FBI to get from tech firms without a court order or warrant?

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Dennis Faas's picture

Surely such letters would undermine the FBI - however, just how much the government needs to know, plus the sheer volume of requests is often debated.

I did have a look at some of these letters and they are very generic. I don't see much point in publishing them because the requests themselves appear to be canned responses. As the article also mentions, the only letters likely to be published are the types of letters we see here today. In other words, they aren't very informative - other than to say the FBI is asking for information about Google users.

tlpots_2634's picture

Another government intrusion that is clearly unconstitutional (5th amendment). They have to have a search warrant for other things that is very explicit (can't have a fishing expedition). The search warrant is confidential until served and must be issued by a court not just the police (in this case FBI).