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April 4, 2013

Google fights national security probe demand for user data

SAN FRANCISCO — Google is challenging a demand by the U.S. government for private user information in a national security probe, according to a court filing.

It "appears" to be the first time a major communications company is pushing back after getting a so-called National Security Letter, said the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet privacy group.

The challenge from the operator of the world's largest search engine comes three weeks after a federal judge in San Francisco ruled that NSLs, which are issued without a warrant, are unconstitutional.

"The people who are in the best position to challenge the practice are people like Google," said EFF attorney Matt Zimmerman, who represented an unidentified service provider that won the March 14 ruling. "So far no one has really stood up for their users" among large Internet service providers.

The government has issued 300,000 NSLs since 2000, and only four or five recipients have challenged the letters, Zimmerman said. Civil-rights groups say NSLs give federal agents unchecked powers to spy on people while the government says they're a crucial tool in the fight against terrorism and threats to national security.

Google, in its first public disclosure about national security letters, said in a March 5 report that it received in the range of zero to 999 NSLs annually starting in 2009 affecting more than 1,000 accounts. In a company blog post, Richard Salgado, Google's legal director for law enforcement and information security, thanked U.S. government officials "for working with us to provide greater insight into the use of NSLs."

Google filed a petition to set aside a "legal process" pursuant "to 18 U.S.C. Section 3511 (a) and (b)," according to a March 29 filing in federal court in San Francisco seeking a court order to seal its request. Petitions "filed under Section 3511 of Title 18 to set aside legal process issued under Section 2709 of Title 18 must be filed under seal because Section 2709 prohibits disclosure of the legal process," Kevan Fornasero, Google's lawyer, said in the filing.

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