Google Sued By Justice Department For Warrantless Access To User Records
June 1, 2013

US Justice Department Secretly Sued Google For Warrantless Access To User Records

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

The US Department of Justice secretly filed a lawsuit in April attempting to force Google to give them access to user records without a search warrant, various media outlets have learned.

CNET´s Declan McCullagh, who broke the story on Friday, said that the lawsuit was filed in a Manhattan courtroom back on April 22 and “offers a rare glimpse of how determined prosecutors are to defend a process that allows federal agents to gain warrantless access to user records.”

The lawsuit “was sparked by Google's decision to rebuff the FBI's legal demands for confidential user data,” McCullagh added. “It centers on the bureau's controversial use of so-called National Security Letters (NSL), a secret electronic data-gathering technique that does not need a judge's approval and recently was declared unconstitutional in an unrelated court case.”

According to UPI reports, the NSL technique did not require a judge´s approval to be used, and was only supposed to apply to issues of national security — not routine criminal investigations. They also essentially serve as a gag order to anyone who receives one, as it is illegal to disclose that fact, CNET noted.

The Mountain View, California-based tech giant was previously challenging NSLs in a California court, and asked San Francisco District Court Judge Susan Illston to throw out the New York case. Illston reportedly declined, ruling that the issue “is more squarely raised” in the Manhattan case. However, she said that she would revisit the issue if needed. In the meantime, the New York case will be heard by District Judge Richard Sullivan.

Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Legal Director Cindy Cohn, who is leading a lawsuit filed by the organization challenging NSLs on behalf of an unidentified telecommunications company, told UPI that it is unclear why Google has chosen to battle the Justice Department on this issue.

“My instinct tells me that Google doesn't pick a fight with the government easily,” she explained. “There's probably something going on here that's different from a run-of-the-mill NSL.”

“Google's history shows it prefers to resolve disputes with government agencies amicably,” McCullagh said. “One possibility is that Google has simply concluded that the FBI's demands are illegal.” Another is that the company is “fighting to give notice” to their users by arguing that the gag order portion of NSLs are illegal, Cohn added.