A federal judge ruled that Google Inc. must hand over customer data to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, although the agency has no warrant.
The internet giant argued government practices of issuing so-called national security letters to telecommunication companies, ISPs, banks and more are unconstitutional and unnecessary. However, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston ruled on May 20 that Google must comply with the FBI’s orders.
Counter-terrorism agents in the FBI began issuing secret letters, which do not need approval from a judge, asking companies to turn over sensitive, private user information in the interest of national security. The letters were part of the Patriot Act, passed after Sept. 11, 2001, the same act that allowed the government to listen in on telephone conversations without a warrant.
The letters prompted many companies to argue the government was violating user privacy.
Illston’s ruling is on hold until the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has a say on the matter. Until then Google will have to comply with all requests, a total of 19 letters, unless it can show the FBI did not follow proper procedures in making the demands.
The judge said she is confident 17 of 19 letters were issued properly, after she reviewed sworn statements from two top-ranking FBI officials. She wants more information on the other two letters.
The San Francisco-Based judge ruled several months ago in a separate case in favor of Electronic Frontier Foundation, who also disputed letters they received. Apparently part of the FBI demand included that recipients not tell anyone they received them. Illston ruled that request violated free speech rights.
Foundation attorney Kurt Opsah said it could be months for the court rules on the letters sent to Google.
"We are disappointed that the same judge who declared these letters unconstitutional is now requiring compliance with them," Opsah said Friday.
Google can appeal Illston’s ruling, but the company declined to comment on Friday.
The Justice Department inspector general, in 2007, found that there were widespread violations in the way the FBI used the letters, including acquiring information in non-emergency circumstances.