Saturday, March 10, 2007

FBI panned for abuse of national security letters under USA Patriot Act

The F.B.I. drew sharp rebuke from multiple media reports March 9 about a Department of Justice report and audit detailing carelessness in the way the FBI, using the authority of the U.S. A. Patriot Act, has sought national serurity letters to obtain private correspondence (phone and email, mainly) about various persons who might be remotely connected to terrorism or associated activities like money laundering. Sometimes the requests called for exigent letters in circumstances that were not emergenices.

The report relects the ambiguity of many situations, the complexity of the rules for agents to follow, and the difficulty for law enforcement to determine whether a communication, email, blog posting, profile, chat, or discussion forum item represents some kind of implied threat or simply is being posed as an abstract discussion or role playing (nearly always the case). The proliferation of scams and phishing, often by email spam and worms, also makes it difficult to determine what is an item of substance.

I have, on a few occasions, turned over emails that I have received to law enforcement because I thought the information was significant, and in one case I did have an extended conversation by phone with an FBI agent in Philadelphia about an item I had received. Controversial blogs and websites will attract troubling chatter once in a while, and it is difficult to determine what is significant. The challenge for law enforcement is to connect the dots and recognize real patterns (or repeated material) in chatter sent to different and unrelated parties.

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