Credit Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
After a decade of court battles, the Internet entrepreneur who filed the first legal challenge to a type of secret administrative order known as a national security letter revealed on Monday the breadth of an F.B.I. demand in 2004 for information about a customer.
National security letters, which empower federal investigators to seek certain customer records without court approval or oversight, were significantly expanded as part of the USA Patriot Act after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In August, a judge ruled that the entrepreneur, Nicholas Merrill, could disclose what he had been asked to turn over if the government did not file an appeal within 90 days, and the deadline has now passed.
Mr. Merrill revealed that the F.B.I. in 2004 ordered his company, Calyx Internet Access, to turn over all physical mail addresses, email addresses and Internet Protocol addresses associated with one customerâs account, as well as telephone and billing records and anything else considered to be an âelectronic communications transactional record.â The order said the content of communications between the customer and others should not be handed over.
The bureau also sought the accountâs âradius log,â which a related court opinion said could include âcell-tower-based phone tracking information.â But the Justice Department told the court, the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York, that the F.B.I. no longer obtained such data with national security letters.
After Mr. Merrill received the F.B.I. order in 2004, he began a court challenge assisted by the American Civil Liberties Union. The litigation proceeded under seal for years because the government contended that it could keep everything about national security letters, including who had been served with one, a secret. Mr. Merrill argued that this rule infringed on his First Amendment rights.
In the meantime, national security letters have become more publicly controversial as the F.B.I.âs use of the tool has increased significantly. In 2007 and 2008, the Justice Departmentâs inspector general found numerous problems with how the bureau was using and keeping records about the letters.
In 2010, Mr. Merrill won a ruling permitting him to identify himself as having received such a letter, but the rest of the secrecy order remained in place.
In 2014, Mr. Merrill opened a new court challenge to win the right to talk about the order he had received, this time assisted by the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School.