Ever since the 1980s, the FBI has been sending what have become known as “National Security Letters” to a wide variety of financial institutions and other businesses, including phone companies and Internet providers. These letters state in a very intimidating way that the company must turn over personal information about a particular person to the FBI.
In addition, the letters usually say that the company is not allowed to tell anyone about the letters OR reveal to the targets of the letters that the FBI has requested this information about them. Failure to heed these warnings could result in punishment for the bank or other company.
At one point, Congress almost did away with these letters, as they were an obvious attack against personal privacy. But once the USA Patriot Act was established following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it was business as usual for the FBI. The number of these National Security Letters has increased dramatically in recent years, with 16,511 of them having been sent requesting information about 7,201 people in 2011.
The average citizen may be powerless to do anything about this privacy breach, but the courts are not. Just last week, a federal judge struck down a set of laws allowing the FBI to seek people’s records without court approval. Declaring these National Security Letters unconstitutional, Judge Susan Illston said that the letters violate the First Amendment and the separation of powers principles, and added that the letters do not “serve the compelling need of national security.”
What do you think about this judge’s decision? Do you agree that the FBI should have to obtain a court-ordered warrant to gain personal information about someone from a company? And even if the FBI does gain that warrant, should the person who is being investigated have the right to know about it?
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