A federal judge Friday ordered the U.S. government to stop issuing “national security letters” — secret demands made of telecommunications companies for their customers’ private data that forbid recipients from discussing the orders with most anyone.

Susan Illston, a California district court judge, said the letters ran afoul of the First Amendment rights of the parties being served the orders. The letters came into use after 9/11 under the Patriot Act and are among the most secretive tools used by the government to collect information in its alleged counterterrorism campaign.

National security letters were at the center of the story of Nicholas Merrill, a former New York City-based Internet provider who was the first to successfully refuse an order to hand over customer data.

— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

The Guardian:

The judge’s order will not go into immediate effect as she built in a 90-day delay to allow the government to appeal. It was made in response to a highly unusual court case in which one of the recipients of an NSL – an unnamed telecoms company – sued the FBI for breach of its rights in May 2011.

The FBI shot back by counter-suing the company.

The telecoms company was represented in the case by the Electronics Frontier Foundation, a non-profit group that advocates for public rights in the digital world. In a statement, the EFF’s senior staff attorney Matt Zimmerman said the court order had exposed the constitutional shortcomings of the NSLs.

“The government’s gags have truncated the public debate on these controversial surveillance tools. Our client looks forward to the day when it can publicly discuss its experience.”

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