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A National Security Letter, an onerous tool deployed by the Bureau to root out suspected "terrorists" and other malefactors, is a covert means by which the state obtains access to personal customer records from Internet Service Providers, banks, other financial institutions and credit reporting agencies without the approval of a judge. In other words, under the guise of a "national security investigation," NSLs are very sharp hooks for government fishing expeditions.
Recipients are gagged from ever disclosing they have come under the Bureau's baneful gaze. And since the passage of the viral Patriot Act in 2001 by a servile Congress, the use of these illegal procedures have fed the FBI's seemingly insatiable demand for private records. Wired magazine reports that between 2003-2006 the Bureau has issued some 200,000 NSLs, often without a shred of legal justification for doing so, nor oversight to rein in their misuse. Ryan Singel writes:
Though FBI guidelines on using NSLs warned of overusing them, two Congressionally ordered audits revealed that the FBI had issued hundreds of illegal requests for student health records, telephone records and credit reports. The reports also found that the FBI had issued hundreds of thousands of NSLs since 2001, but failed to track their use. In a letter to Congress last week, the FBI admitted it can only estimate how many NSLs it has issued. (Ryan Singel, "FBI Targets Internet Archive with Secretive National Security Letter, Loses," Wired, May 7, 2008)[\ex]
At least there are some people who believe that our conversations, purchases, and surfing habits should still be private--to some extent.