Anonymous telco embroiled in national security fight with Justice Department

An anonymous telecommunications company that decided to fight, rather than comply with an "ultra-secret demand letter from the FBI" seeking information on its customers is now embroiled in a government suit of national security proportions.

In response to the FBI request, the telco, believed to be located in the San Francisco area, challenged the underlying authority of the National Security Letter (NSL) and the gag order that came with it. The challenge apparently followed federal appeals laws that govern Patriot Act NSLs allowing the government to get detailed information on Americans' finances and communications without judicial oversight.

The FBI has been criticized for abusing the power but rarely challenged. When the telecom did challenge it, the Justice Department responded with a suit that claimed the telco was violating the law by challenging its authority, according to redacted documents first provided to The Wall Street Journal then released more widely by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization representing the unnamed telco.

"It's a huge deal to say you are in violation of federal law having to do with a national security investigation. That is extraordinarily aggressive from my standpoint. They say they are violating the law by challenging our authority here," Matt Zimmerman, an EFF attorney said in a story reported by Wired.

This is the second substantial challenge to NSLs, following one by a small ISP owner in 2004. That challenge fizzled when the government dropped its demand for documents.

The current case began sometime in 2011 with an NSL from the FBI that the telco, via EFF, challenged on First Amendment grounds. The Justice Department then filed a lawsuit against the telecom for refusing to comply with the NSL and "interfer(ing) with the United States vindication of its sovereign interests in law enforcement, counterintelligence and protecting national security."

The suit seemed to fly into the face of the telecom's right to challenge the NSL, which, Zimmerman told Wired "was eye-opening to us that they followed that approach."

Since then the Justice Department agreed to stay the civil suit and let the telecom challenge play out in court. That said, it has never dropped the civil suit altogether.

"So there's still this live complaint that they have refused to drop saying that our client was in violation of the law," Zimmer said.

Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle declined to comment to Wired.

For more:
- Wired has this story

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