Will the Feds Force Google to Reveal Users’ Secrets?

It looks like Internet privacy issues are more in play than ever. When the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) released its “Who Has Your Back?” study in April, many observers were surprised Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) scored so high on the list. Now it appears the tech giant is earning its rating as it tries to block Department of Justice requests for information of users on the grounds of unconstitutionality.

Declan McCullagh reported on CNET that Google and the U.S. Department of Justice are squaring off on a level that is uncommon for the tech company. The DOJ filed a lawsuit in Manhattan court maintaining it has the right to access Google users’ search histories and other information without a warrant through the use of National Security Letters (NSLs). Bloomberg reported in April that Google was pushing back against the FBI and its persistence in using an NSL to get information about subjects of concern.

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Google might be feeling empowered by a ruling in San Francisco in March that ruled NSLs were unconstitutional. The EFF was working on behalf of a telecom client in that case. Part of the controversial nature of NSLs are the way in which recipients are not allowed to publicize the fact that they were asked for information. The gag-rule is also in effect in the Google case, but disclosures of the court documents have been leaked to reporters.

Will the outcome of the DOJ suit be affected by the San Francisco court’s ruling on NSLs? It seems unlikely, as the judges in that case actually rewrote part of the authorizations in order to make them more palatable for future courts. Yet FBI officials largely ignored those changes to the law, according to the judge presiding over another NSL case with Google in San Francisco court.

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The ruling on the New York lawsuit could have major implications for how users’ privacy is respected in the coming era. Many expect the Supreme Court to look at this case before long. In the meantime, EFF advocates and others are glad a company of Google’s size is the one standing up to the government. Countless others would be swallowed whole by a DOJ suit. It seems like Google’s rating as a company that “has your back” is warranted.

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