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Debbie O'Leary
IU School of Law--Bloomington

Last modified: Friday, April 18, 2008

IU law professor provides testimony on The National Security Letters Reform Act

April 18, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The National Security Letters Reform Act being considered by Congress is an "important first step" in protecting Americans against excessive data-mining, but more needs to be done, an Indiana University law professor said.

Fred Cate, distinguished professor at the IU School of Law--Bloomington and director of the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University, provided written testimony on the legislation this week to the House Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

Cate said National Security Letters (NSLs), issued by the FBI to telephone companies, financial institutions, Internet service providers and consumer credit agencies, are just one tool the government has been using to amass personal and often sensitive information about individuals. Others include telephone wiretap orders, requirements for financial institutions to file Current Transaction Reports and Suspicious Activity Reports, and Treasury Department subpoenas of international financial transaction data.

"In short, NSLs are only one indicator of a sweeping trend in which the government is collecting more and more personal data about its own citizens and mining it for a wide variety of purposes, of which protecting national security is only one," Cate testified. "This ubiquitous data collection and use reflects a profound shift in the relationship between the government and the people."

Cate said securing Americans' constitutionally protected rights against unreasonable searches provides one compelling reason for Congress to act. Another, he said, is that putting appropriate limits on the collection, use and storage of personal data will enhance, not weaken, the nation's security.

"As many people have noted, pursuing data just for the sake of amassing more data, or relying on outdated or unreliable data, is as dangerous to security as to privacy," Cate said. "The intelligence failures that led up to the terrorist attacks have frequently been described as a failure to 'connect the dots,' but rarely as a need for more dots."

Cate said he applauded members of Congress for introducing the National Security Letters Reform Act and scheduling it for committee hearings. The act enhances court oversight of National Security Letters, limits the purposes for which they may be used, allows legal action by persons who are wrongly targeted by NSLs and limits the placing of "gag orders" on recipients of the letters. It also includes a five-year sunset provision, after which the laws on National Security Letters would revert to what they were before the passage of the USA-PATRIOT Act in 2001.