FBI scoops up per­sonal data from scores of com­pa­nies

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - News - BY JEN­NIFER VALENTINO-DEVRIES

The FBI has used se­cret sub­poe­nas to ob­tain per­sonal data from far more com­pa­nies than pre­vi­ously dis­closed, newly re­leased doc­u­ments show.

The re­quests, which the FBI says are crit­i­cal to its coun­tert­er­ror­ism ef­forts, have raised pri­vacy con­cerns for years but have been as­so­ci­ated mainly with tech com­pa­nies. Now, records show how far be­yond Sil­i­con Val­ley the prac­tice ex­tends – en­com­pass­ing scores of banks, credit agen­cies, cell­phone car­ri­ers and even uni­ver­si­ties.

The de­mands can scoop up a va­ri­ety of in­for­ma­tion, in­clud­ing user­names, lo­ca­tions, IP ad­dresses and records of pur­chases. They don’t re­quire a judge’s ap­proval and usu­ally come with a gag or­der, leav­ing them shrouded in se­crecy. Fewer than 20 en­ti­ties, most of them tech com­pa­nies, have ever re­vealed that they’ve re­ceived the sub­poe­nas, known as na­tional se­cu­rity let­ters.

The doc­u­ments, ob­tained by the Elec­tronic Fron­tier Foun­da­tion through a Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act law­suit and shared with The New York Times, shed light on the scope of the de­mands – more than 120 com­pa­nies and other en­ti­ties were in­cluded in the fil­ing – and raise ques­tions about the ef­fec­tive­ness of a 2015 law that was in­tended to in­crease trans­parency around them.

“This is a pretty po­tent author­ity for the govern­ment,” said Stephen Vladeck, a law pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Texas who spe­cial­izes in na­tional se­cu­rity. “The ques­tion is: Do we have a right to know when the govern­ment is col­lect­ing in­for­ma­tion on us?”

The doc­u­ments pro­vide in­for­ma­tion on about 750 of the sub­poe­nas – rep­re­sent­ing a small but telling fraction of the half-mil­lion is­sued since 2001, when the Pa­triot Act ex­panded their pow­ers.

The credit agen­cies Equifax, Ex­pe­rian and Tran­sUnion re­ceived a large num­ber of the let­ters in the fil­ing. So did fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions like Bank of Amer­ica, West­ern Union and even the Fed­eral Re­serve Bank of New York. All de­clined to ex­plain how they han­dle the let­ters.

Other com­pa­nies in­cluded ma­jor cel­lu­lar providers such as AT&T and Ver­i­zon, as well as tech gi­ants like Google and Face­book, which have ac­knowl­edged re­ceiv­ing the let­ters in the past.

Al­bert Gi­dari, a lawyer who long rep­re­sented tech and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies and is now the pri­vacy di­rec­tor at Stan­ford’s Cen­ter for In­ter­net and So­ci­ety, said Sil­i­con Val­ley had been as­so­ci­ated with the sub­poe­nas be­cause it was more will­ing than other in­dus­tries to fight the gag or­ders. “Tele­coms and fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions get lit­tle at­ten­tion,” he said, even though the law specif­i­cally says they are fair game.

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