Digital technologies are changing everyday business in all business, even the national security business. Especially when agencies learned that the 9/11 attacks were planned and executed mainly over the internet, governments increased their pressure on every major website and portal.
We feel the government pressure at every level in Turkey. Journalists are under constant pressure over what to write and the journalists jailed in Turkey are far more than that of Iran and China. Therefore it is very well known that freedom of speech and protection of personal information is not very high on the current government’s agenda. That’s why we can only assume that the governmental agencies are tapping into mail, phone calls and other social media outlets; we read about secret conversations between soldiers and famous people from time to time as the government or some other power see it fit for us to learn about them. No one can give a number to how many times the government listened to people or intercepted mail. It is even very problematic to ask about it.
The situation is not very bright in the U.S. either. However, Google is more transparent than the ISP’s or any other service providers in Turkey and it makes all the difference.
Recently Google announced how many times the FBI asked for the personal information of its users. It was the first time a company has ever released data chronicling the volume of National Security Letter requests.
According to Wired.com, National Security Letters allow the government to get detailed information on Americans’ finances and communications without oversight from a judge. The FBI has issued hundreds of thousands of NSLs and has even been reprimanded for abusing them. The NSLs are written demands from the FBI that compel internet service providers, credit companies, financial institutions and businesses like Google to hand over confidential records about their customers, such as subscriber information, phone numbers and e-mail addresses, websites visited and more as long as the FBI says the information is “relevant” to an investigation.
In each year from 2009 to 2012, Google said it received “0-999″ National Security Letters.
Under the Patriot Act, Google or others who receive an NSL must disclose the sought-after information if the authorities say the request is “relevant to an authorized investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.”
National Security Letters are a powerful tool because they do not require court approval and they come with a built-in gag order, preventing recipients from disclosing to anyone that they have even received an NSL. An FBI agent looking into a possible anti-terrorism case can self-issue an NSL to a credit bureau, ISP or phone company with only the sign-off of the special agent in charge of their office. What’s more, the lack of court oversight raises the possibility for extensive abuse.
In 2007 a Justice Department Inspector General audit found that the FBI had indeed abused its authority and misused NSLs on many occasions. After 9/11, for example, the FBI paid multimillion-dollar contracts to AT&T and Verizon requiring the companies to station employees inside the FBI and to give these employees access to the telecom databases so they could immediately service FBI requests for telephone records. The IG found that the employees let FBI agents illegally look at customer records without paperwork and even wrote NSLs for the FBI.
In this corner of the world the situation is a bit worse. We have mechanisms like NSL’s but no one is keeping track and no one is really questioning their motives. There is no one defending civil rights against the government. We as Turks unfortunately gave in for the stability and money that comes with a steel-like government. History will judge our inaction.