A lawsuit filed in Manhattan by the US Department of Justice against Google serves as a reminder that our right to privacy is in jeopardy, and lawmakers need to craft legislation to protect our rights before they are violated. In this case, prosecutors are focused on gaining access to user data without first obtaining a warrant, while Google champions the cause for the users, calling the government's requests illegal.
This lawsuit was filed on April 22, but just disclosed on May 31. The FBI wanted the data and attempted to gather it using their highly controversial National Security Letters (NSL), a highly secretive method of gathering data not requiring a warrant issued by the court. More importantly, this process was recently deemed unconstitutional in a court case unrelated to this one.
Down With NSLs
Why are NSLs so controversial, anyway? If you happen to receive an one, it is against the law for you to speak of it to anyone. The FBI is only supposed to rely on NSLs in investigations regarding national security rather than criminal investigations, and there is no limit to the data that one NSL can ask for.
A report issued by the inspector general discovered the FBI made 50,000 NSL requests back in 2006, with 97 percent of them involving a mandatory gag order. What can the NSLs ask for? They are allowed to ask for user profile information, but not physical emails or log files.
The FBI is not pleased by Google's refusal to provide the information. Just after the New York FBI field office sent the NSL back in April, they also filed a "petition to enforce" in Manhattan federal court at the same time. Google felt this didn't give them a chance to have the case reviewed prior to releasing the information, something they felt was unfair.
Because there was a lawsuit pending in California (also filed by Google, challenging NSLs), the company asked US District Judge Susan Illston of San Francisco to throw out the Manhattan NSL. The judge denied this motion, saying the issue "is more squarely raised" in the New York case. She did say she would revisit the issue if need be.
Why Google Is Suing
No one is truly sure why Google is fighting the DOJ. The legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (who has also filed a lawsuit against NSLs for another anonymous telecommunications company) doesn't think Google is the type of company to pick battles with the government on a whim. She suspects there is something that no one is aware of going on that differentiates the case against typical NSL cases.
In the past, Google has settled disputes rather than going forward with litigation. It's settled in the cases of Safari ad tracking, complaints against Google Buzz, and more recently in 2011, when it settled a case brought forward by the Justice Department regarding Canadian pharmacies for $500 million.
Some believe Google finds the FBI's request for information illegal. It's hard to say without the details of the case. But it is good to know that there are companies fighting to protect the privacy of our citizens.