OTG joins coalition in opposing expansion of government authority to access private data

Yesterday, OpenTheGovernment.org joined a coalition of civil society organizations, companies, and trade associations in opposition to an expansion of a statute that would expand the government’s ability to access private data without a court order. The letter opposes to two proposals to expand the National Security Letter (NSL) statute; one that is included in the Senate’s Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, and the one filed by Senator Cornyn as an amendment to the ECPA (Electronic Communications Privacy Act) reform bill.

While the FBI has characterized the expansion of the NSL statute as merely fixing a “typo” in the law, the letter emphasizes that the change would dramatically expand the ability of the FBI to get sensitive information about user’s online activities without court oversight. The provision would expand the categories of records that the FBI can obtain using administrative subpoenas called NSL’s, which do not require probable cause.

The proposals to expand the use of NSL’s raise serious concerns for the open government community, particularly given the history of abuse and secrecy associated with the use of NSL authorities. The FBI has issued over 300,000 NSL’s over the past decade and data collected under this authority  was stored indefinitely, and used to gain access to private information in cases that were not relevant to an FBI investigation, according to the Justice Department’s Inspector General.   

“Given the sensitive nature of the information that could be swept up under the proposed expansion, and the documented past abuses of the underlying NSL statute,” the letter reads, “we urge the Senate to remove this provision from the Intelligence Authorization bill and oppose efforts to include such language in the ECPA reform bill, which has never included the proposed NSL expansion.”

For more information on the proposal, see:

Press Release, Sen. Ron Wyden, Wyden Opposes 2017 Intelligence Authorization Act that Expands Government Surveillance and Undermines Independent Oversight Board (May 24, 2016)

Amendment to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act of 2015, S. 356, 114th Cong. (2016).

Hearing on Worldwide Threats Before the S. Comm. On the Judiciary, 114th Cong. (Feb. 9, 2016) (Statement of James Comey, Dir., Fed. Bureau of Investigation)

National Security Letters: FAQ, Electronic Frontier Foundation