DOJ busted by redaction mishap, names Google in 'gagging order' filing

The U.S. Justice Dept. appears to have been fooled — not by hackers, a foreign spy, or a former employee turned whistleblower — but by its own redaction tools.

(Screenshot: ZDNet. Document via The Wall Street Journal)

Someone's probably getting fired for that hiccup.

Last Friday, the U.S. Justice Department failed to redact certain key information from a court filing, which identified Google as the previously unnamed Internet company fighting the U.S. government to release law enforcement requests for data.

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The Wall Street Journal, which first broke the story, noted that the previously unnamed company has been pushing back against government data requests under the National Security Letter (NSL) provision, section 505, of the Patriot Act.

The U.S. government has issued 300,000 NSLs since 2000, but only a few recipients have actively challenged the letters in court. The White House insists that the secrecy clauses are necessary to prevent the tipping-off of criminals or terrorists.

These letters can be used in conjunction with other legal instruments to demand information about data — so-called "metadata," though not the contents of emails and phone calls, which still requires a warrant. These letters often come with strict gagging orders that prevent recipients from disclosing any details in the letter, or even the fact they received such a letter.

These gagging order provisions were found in breach of the First Amendment rights to free speech and were ruled unconstitutional earlier this year.

Google began to challenge a number of these NSLs as part of its transparency efforts, but was systematically shot down by the courts.

Once news of the National Security Agency's surveillance program PRISM came to light in June, Google once again asked a court, this time the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, to allow it to change its mind, allowing the search giant to be open about what it does with user's data when the U.S. government demands it.

From the court filing [PDF], you can see the search giant clearly named in first line):

On June 6, 2013, the public's already healthy interest in Google's receipt of, and response to, national security legal process skyrocketed. [REDACTED] The news coverage has prompted public debate about the appropriate scope of government surveillance programs, a debate the President has encouraged [...] In light of the broadly available misinformation about [REDACTED] receipt of and compliance with national security process and the concerns and questions of its users and the public, but respectful of the government's legitimate interest in protecting national security, [REDACTED] seeks to advance the public debate by taking reasonable, limited steps to increase transparency regarding its practices.

This is the only mention of Google anywhere in the document, but one mention is all it takes. 

Of course, another giveaway for legal insiders, is the named attorney on the very first page of the document. Todd Hinnen, who works for Perkins Coie, works with Google as outside counsel on legal matters.  

According to the newspaper, Hinnen could "neither confirm nor deny" the veracity of the document, and declined to comment on his role with Google.

(via The Wall Street Journal)