FBI Withdraws NSL Letter After Microsoft Fights Back

Microsoft, for the first time ever, was allowed to reveal an NSL (National Security Letter) in the light of day.

For the uninformed, a National Security Letter or NSL, is a document that thousands of tech companies around the country receive each year, requesting data and information on specific customers who use products or services provided by targeted firms.

Normally they are used to gain access to specific information on a defined target, however this time around it was the fact that the FBI was curious about an enterprise customer that gave Microsoft all the legs they needed to stand on to take the bureau into open court.

“We concluded that the nondisclosure provision was unlawful and violated our Constitutional right to free expression. It did so by hindering our practice of notifying enterprise customers when we receive legal orders related to their data”, wrote Microsoft’s general counsel Brad Smith in a blog post.

Microsoft isn’t the only company who’s dragged the FBI to open court over this issue, however they are the first to actually have the case withdrawn once they did.

Apparently the FBI isn’t too keen on the general public and a jury of their peers finding out what they wanted to know about an unnamed number of customers, and instead of fighting the case they’ve simply dropped it altogether in an effort to keep their operations as under wraps as possible.

Microsoft claims the gag order included in every NSL, which supposedly prevents them from talking about the NSL, is a violation of the First Amendment, not to mention a few others having to do with the illegal search and seizure of American citizens private information.

Of the documents released to the public as a part of the judge’s ruling are the original NSL, an agreement between Microsoft and the Justice Department over the FBI letter, and District Judge Richard Jones’ unsealing order.

What makes this case of interest in particular is unlike the majority of NSL, which usually only request data on individual customers, this letter was making a special exception for the data of an enterprise client, which is what enabled Microsoft’s legal team to challenge it in court without a fight.

“Fortunately, government requests for customer data belonging to enterprise customers are extremely rare. We therefore have seldom needed to litigate this type of issue. In those rare cases where we have received requests, we’ve succeeded in redirecting the government to obtain the information from the customer, or we have obtained permission from the customer to provide the data. We’re pleased with the outcome of this case, which validates our approach.”

While companies like Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, and Facebook have secretly been receiving NSL’s in the mail for years, this is the first time any of them have had the chance to openly reject the request without fear of repercussion for violating the gag order contained within.