The U.S. Justice Department just had their biggest blow in regards to obtaining Internet and telephone surveillance data.  A U.S. judge just ruled that National Security Letters (NSLs) are illegal under the U.S. Constitution.

The FBI, DEA and other federal police agencies use what is referred to as "National Security Letters", which are known simply as NSLs, in order to conduct surveillance on people or businesses without the need of a search warrant.  That has all changed now when a U.S. Federal court ruled NSLs to be illegal.

The history of NSLs dates back nearly 4 decades to the 1970s when the Justice Department claimed that getting a search warrant for every incident was time consuming and detrimental to any particularly important cases.  When the U.S. was under terrorist attacks in September 2001 (9/11), many new laws and statues were rushed through such as the U.S. Patriot Act that only amplified the Justice Department’s ability to issue NSLs, which includes data on American citizen's Internet E-mails.

Just recently Google disclosed publicly just how many NSL requests they have received, but only listed the numbers without any particular specifics or which people were investigated.  When a company gets an NSL request the law forbids them from disclosing the request to anyone else unless it is a company adviser or attorney for the corporation or ISP.  Nevertheless, Google said their latest policy of NSL and other national governments requests and warrants needed to be public information.

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston concluded in the ruling that NSLs are in direct violation of the First Amendment and separation of powers principles.  However, the ruling has a stay pending appeal or 90 days if no appeal due to what judge Illston referred to as “national security issues at stake.”

The case against the Justice Department came in 2011 from an unnamed company that was being represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

EFF attorney Matt Zimmerman said in a recent statement, "We are very pleased that the court recognized the fatal constitutional shortcomings of the NSL statute.  The government's gags have truncated the public debate on these controversial surveillance tools. Our client looks forward to the day when it can publicly discuss its experience."

Even the Federal government's own people have found flaws in NSL requests.  Back In 2007 the Justice Department’s inspector general said that they had found instances where FBI special agents were abusing the NSLs and many of the NSLs were considered ‘inadequately documented’.

The Department of Justice issued a statement in regards to the recent California ruling saying that they would be filing an appeal, which is sure to spur more criticism and constitutional legality of NSLs by other civil liberty organizations.

Source: (PDF file copy) US District Court, Northern District of California Filing – Order granting to put aside NSL