Yes, FBI spies are watching us, or at least some of us, Google admitted in its Transparency Report. The web giant released some vague details about government requests on the private information of its users, providing ranges of figures “to address concerns raised by the FBI, Justice Department and other agencies that releasing exact numbers might reveal information about investigations. We plan to update these figures annually,” Google explained in a blog post.
The requests for private user information come in the form of National Security Letters, which allow the government to get detailed data on the finances and communications of American citizens without the approval of a judge. NSL’s were expanded to include Internet activity following 9-11, and the FBI regularly uses them to solicit information from credit companies, financial institutions, and web entities like Google. Typically, receivers of NSL’s are prohibited from discussing them outside of legal counsel. Google struck a deal with the Obama administration to disclose some details of the requests, but could only use ranges of figures rather than specifics. The Transparency Report list ballpark figures for requests Google has received since 2009.
Google was ordered to provide the government data in 1,000 to 1,999 user accounts in 2009, 2011 and 2012. The number reached 2,000 to 2,999 users in 2010.
The requested information could include the name, address, and billing records of a subscriber, but not Gmail content or IP addresses.
NSL’s have raised the concerns of civil rights proponents, including the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. According to Wired, a justice department inspector in 2007 found misuse of NSLs by the government in numerous instances, including the stationing of FBI agents as employees of Verizon and AT&T who illegally examined customer’s records without the proper paperwork.