Judge says national security letters – which allow government to obtain data without citizens’ consent – breach first amendmentThe FBI has suffered a dramatic setback in its use of hyper-secret gagging orders in the name of national security to obtain the private data of US citizens, after a federal court struck down the practice.A judge in a California US district court ordered the US government to stop issuing what are called “national security letters”. Susan Illston said the letters, which have mushroomed since 9/11 under the Patriot Act, were unconstitutional as they breached the first amendment rights of the parties being served the orders.NSLs have been an increasingly important part of the US government’s approach to counter-terrorism, though their growing use has been matched by mounting unease on the party of civil libertarians. Last year the FBI sent out more than 16,000 of the letters relating to the private data – mainly financial, internet or phone records – of more than 7,000 Americans.Previous court action has led to the FBI being accused of abusing its powers under the NSL statute by issuing the letters far more extensively than in the limited counter-terrorism situations for which they were devised.The letters are among the most secretive tools of any deployed by the US state. The demand for data comes with a gagging order attached – meaning that the recipient of the NSL is not allowed even to discuss the letter in public.As an additional affront, civil liberties groups say, the FBI is allowed to issue the letters without approval from a judge.
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