Twitter reveals the worrying content of two secret National Security Letters


All the big players in the world of tech release transparency reports these days, and Twitter is no different. Like other companies, Twitter has been unable to report details of any National Security Letters (NSLs) it receives from the FBI asking for access to user account information.

These data requests are accompanied by gagging orders that prevent the recipients from informing either the public or the subject of the letter about the request. The gag has now been lifted and Twitter has shared the contents of two letters which ask for a "large amount of data."

The first letter, dated September 2015, asks for the name, address, length of service, and electronic communications transactional records for all services, as well as all accounts, provided to the individual(s) or identifier(s) listed below. The name of the account is still redacted, despite the gag order being lifted, but we can see that the FBI is requesting data that covers nearly a year.

The second letter comes from June 2016, and asks for the same information about another redacted account, this time covering the period "inception to present." In both instances the FBI says that:

We are not directing you to provide, nor should you provide, information pursuant to this letter that would disclose the content of any electronic communication. Section 2510 (8) defines contents as "any information concerning the substance, purport, or meaning of" a communication. The subject lines of e-mails and message content are "content" information and should not be provided pursuant to this letter.

Despite the letters, Twitter says that it "provides a very limited set of data in response to NSLs", and goes on to say:

We're encouraged by the lifting of these two gag orders and those recently disclosed by Cloudflare, Google, the Internet Archive, and Yahoo!. However, Twitter remains unsatisfied with restrictions on our right to speak more freely about national security requests we may receive. We continue to push for the legal ability to speak more openly on this topic in our lawsuit against the U.S. government, Twitter v. Lynch.

We continue to believe that reporting in government-mandated bands does not provide meaningful transparency to the public or those using our service. However, the government argues that any numerical reporting more detailed than the bands in the USA Freedom Act would be classified and as such not protected by the First Amendment. They further argue that Twitter is not entitled to obtain information from the government about the processes followed in classifying a version Twitter's 2013 Transparency Report or in classifying/declassifying decisions associated with the allowed bands. We would like a meaningful opportunity to challenge government restrictions when "classification" prevents speech on issues of public importance.

While it is impossible to say for certain, Twitter's wording here, coupled with the fact that the existence of NSLs can only be reported in "bands" rather than precise numbers, it's safe to assume that the company has received other similar letters but is unable to tell us.

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