A California district court has ruled that the FBI's controversial national security letters (NSLs) are unconstitutional.
Two provisions of the federal law governing NSLs violate the Constitution, but because the NSL program cannot exist without those provisions, the court halted the entire NSL programme.
The judgement will not go into effect for 90 days, pending appeal.
The FBI can issue an NSL to a telecom company or bank to obtain identifying information about a subscriber, and the agency has the power to demand that the recipients of the letters remain silent.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), acting on behalf of an unnamed telecom company, sued over these NSLs in May 2011, arguing that they were unconstitutional. Today, the court found that the gag order aspect of the NSLs violates the First Amendment, while the fact that the FBI can issue NSLs without court approval violates separation of powers.
According to the EFF, the unnamed telecom it represents "was adamant about its desire to speak publicly about the fact that it received the NSL at issue to further inform the ongoing public debate."
"The First Amendment prevents the government from silencing people and stopping them from criticising its use of executive surveillance power," EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn said in a statement. "The NSL statute has long been a concern of many Americans, and this small step should help restore balance between liberty and security."
According to the EFF, the first NSL statute was passed in 1986, but the constitutionality of the program has only been challenged once before 2011. Between 2003 and 2006 alone, the FBI issued more than 200,000 requests for customer information via NSLs.
The ruling comes shortly after Google updated its Transparency Report to include the number of NSLs it receives from the FBI. Due to the secretive nature of these NSLs, the data is rather vague at this point. While the search giant provides very specific numbers with its other transparency reports, the NSL documentation will be reported "in broad strokes."
The information posted earlier this month, for example, said that Google received between zero and 999 NSLs in 2012 regarding 1,000 to 1,999 users/accounts. That's the same number of requests it received in 2009 and 2011; in 2010, the requests pertained to 2,000-2,999 users/accounts.