Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) recently posted information online about two national security letters it received from the Federal Bureau of Investigation that are no longer restricted by a gag order. The letters to Twitter were sent in September 2015 and June 2016. Each of the two national security letters specifically request electronic communication transaction records, which typically includes email header data and a user’s browsing history, among other information. This is the first time the company has been allowed to acknowledge the national security letters.
The letters demanded user data and notified the company that it was barred from discussing the order until an unspecific review in the future. Both letters directed Twitter to provide the FBI with the “name, address, length of service, and electronic communications transactional records for all services, as well as all accounts” for two accounts under investigation. The letters also instructed Twitter not to “disable, suspend, lock, cancel or interrupt service” on either account.
Associate General Counsel for Twitter Elizabeth Banker said that the company had provided each of the account holders with copies of the relevant national security letters and details of the account data the company was required to produce. Banker went on to state that Twitter provides a very limited set of data in response to these types of letters, which is consistent with federal law and interpretive guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Tech companies have been revealing the national security letters they received over the past few months. Cloudflare, Google, the Internet Archive, and Yahoo have all published letters they’ve received. Those letters are being sent to them by the FBI to demand user data without a warrant.
Privacy advocates believe that the FBI has routinely used these types of letters to seek internet records in excess of the limitations provided in a 2008 Justice Department legal memo. That memo concluded that such orders should be restricted to phone billing records.
A lawsuit, Twitter v. Lynch, claims the U.S. government is violating the First Amendment by restricting social media companies from being transparent with users about the requests they receive. Twitter said in a statement that it “remains unsatisfied with restrictions on our right to speak more freely about national security requests we may receive.” The next hearing in that case will take place on February 14th, 2017.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is also currently involved in a lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of national security letters. The next court date for that lawsuit is set for March 20th in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.