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Google must obey FBI's warrantless requests for user data for now, judge rules

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legal (shutterstock)
legal (shutterstock)

Google's attempts to fight FBI National Security Letters, controversial requests to hand over users' data without telling them and without getting a search warrant, aren't going so well. A US District Court Judge in California recently rejected Google's petition to have 19 letters requesting user information thrown out or adjusted, CNET reports. However, there is a silver lining for Google and its users: the federal judge in the case, Susan Illston, also left the door open for Google to file a more narrowly-tailored petition addressing the specific letters it had received, rather than its initial arguments against NSLs more generally.

Documents remain under seal

IIllston is the same judge who earlier this year ruled that NSLs as presently written, and the attached gag orders that prevent companies from publicly describing the letters, are unconstitutional. But because that matter is still being appealed, the documents in the newer Google case still remain under seal. Illston is also stepping down in July, making it unlikely she will be the one to decide the final outcome of this case.

Separately from this case, Google in March moved to share more information with the public about how many NSLs it has received from the government, but has so far only offered vague estimates in its regular Transparency Reports, not specific numbers of NSLs or types of user information being requested. NSLs have been around since the 1980s, but have only begun to be seriously challenged in the courts in the past few years, as reporters and the privacy advocates have learned of the FBI's increasing usage of the tool in the wake of the September 11th, 2001 terror attacks. Some 300,000 NSLs have been sent out since 2000, according to Wired.