EPIC v. NSA: Google / NSA Relationship

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  • Intelligence Director Says NSA Access to Bulk Phone Record Data Will End: The Director of National Intelligence announced today that the NSA analysis of "section 215" telephone records previously gathered will end when the USA FREEDOM Act goes into effect on November 29, 2015. Earlier this month, the U.S. Surveillance Court ruled that the NSA could continue collecting records during a 180 day transition period, despite an earlier decision finding the program was unlawful. In 2012, EPIC testified before the House Judiciary Committee on the need to reform the Surveillance Court. In 2013, EPIC filed a petition in the Supreme Court, In re EPIC, arguing that the NSA program was unlawful. In 2014, EPIC and a broad coalition urged the President to end the NSA surveillance program. (Jul. 27, 2015)
  • Surveillance Court Ignores Court Ruling, Reauthorizes NSA Bulk Collection Program: The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has reauthorized the collection of domestic telephone records for 180 days. The Surveillance Court ignored the recent decision of the Federal Court of Appeals, which held that the NSA bulk collection program is unlawful. In 2012, EPIC testified before the House Judiciary Committee on the need to reform the Surveillance Court. In 2013, EPIC filed a petition in the Supreme Court, In re EPIC, arguing that the NSA program was unlawful. In 2014, EPIC and a broad coalition urged the President to end the NSA surveillance program. Congress then passed the Freedom Act to end program, but the FISC didn't get the memo. (Jul. 1, 2015)
  • Senate Passes FREEDOM Act, Ends NSA Bulk Collection: The Senate has passed the USA FREEDOM Act, sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Senator Mike Lee (R-TX). The Act, which the President is expected to sign, ends the NSA bulk collection of domestic telephone records and establishes new transparency and accountability rules for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. In 2012, EPIC testified before the House Judiciary Committee on the need to reform the Surveillance Court. In 2013, EPIC filed a petition in the Supreme Court, In re EPIC, arguing that the NSA program was unlawful. In 2014, EPIC and a broad coalition urged the President to end the NSA surveillance program. (Jun. 2, 2015)
  • Senate to Debate End of PATRIOT Act: The Senate convenes today for a rare Sunday session. Senators will consider whether to renew key provisions of the PATRIOT Act, including the NSA bulk collection program, due to expire tonight. Senator Rand Paul has said he will oppose any renewal. Also under consideration is the FREEDOM Act, sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Senator Mike Lee (R-TX). In 2013, EPIC filed a petition in the Supreme Court, In re EPIC, supported by experts, scholars, and members of the Church Committee, arguing that the NSA program was unlawful. In 2014, EPIC and a broad coalition urged the President to end the program. The Sunday debate will be broadcast live on CSPAN2 at 4 pm EDT. (May. 31, 2015)
  • Inspector General Warns: Significant Oversight of Section 215 Required: The DOJ's Office of the Inspector General released a report this month detailing the FBI's use of Section 215 and warning that "significant oversight" is required. The Inspector General describes the FBI's expanding use of 215 to collect electronic information in bulk and criticized the agency for taking seven years to develop minimization procedures. The Second Circuit ruled the NSA's telephone record collection program exceeded the legal authority under Section 215. EPIC previously petitioned the Supreme Court to suspend the program. Unless Congress votes to reauthorize or modify the authority, Section 215 is set to expire on June 1. (May. 21, 2015)
  • EPIC, Coalition to President: No Encryption Backdoors: EPIC and a coalition of civil society organizations and security experts urged President Obama to reject proposal to weaken encryption used in U.S. products. Administration officials, including FBI Director Comey, have advocated for broken encryption to enable law enforcement access to private communications. The letter details how weakened encryption undermines cybersecurity and economic security. EPIC previously led the effort to oppose the "Clipper Chip," the NSA's proposal for key escrow encryption that would have severely crippled the privacy and security of online communication. EPIC also recently expressed support for encryption and anonymity in a letter to a UN Rapporteur. (May. 20, 2015)
  • Federal Appeals Court Strikes Down NSA Bulk Record Collection Program: The Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that the NSA's telephone record collection program exceeds legal authority. The government claimed that it could collect all records under the Section 215 "relevance" standard. But the court rejected that argument and held that "such an expansive concept of 'relevance' is unprecedented and unwarranted." The conclusion mirrors the argument EPIC, and a coalition of technical expert, legal scholars, and former members of the Church Committee made in Petition to the Supreme Court in 2013. EPIC explained in its petition, "It is simply not possible that every phone record in the possession of a telecommunications firm could be relevant to an authorized investigation." The Second Circuit found that Section 215 does not "authorize anything approaching the breadth of the sweeping surveillance at issue here." (May. 7, 2015)
  • House Committee Approves Surveillance Reform Bill: The House Judiciary Committee voted to send the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015 to the House of Representatives for further consideration prior to the June 1 Patriot Act expiration deadline. The bill would end the NSA's controversial domestic telephone record collection program. The bill would also establish new transparency requirements for Intelligence Court Orders, recommended by EPIC in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee. EPIC also opposed renewal of the NSA's Section 215 orders and petitioned the Supreme Court to suspend the program. (May. 1, 2015)
  • Senator McConnell Seeks Renewal of NSA Bulk Collection Program: Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has introduced a bill that would extend the Patriot Act until 2020. Specifically, S. 1035 would renew the controversial Section 215 authorities for the NSA's telephone record collection program. The 215 authority is set to expire on June 1. EPIC urged the President and the Attorney General not to renew the 215 order after it became clear that the NSA routinely collected the telephone records of US citizens. EPIC previously petitioned the Supreme Court to suspend the program, arguing that the NSA program exceeded the section 215 legal authority. (Apr. 23, 2015)
  • European Court of Justice Hears Case Challenging "Safe Harbor" Agreement and NSA Spying: The Court of Justice for the European Union heard arguments this week in Maximilian Schrems v. Data Protection Commissioner, a case filed in Ireland following the revelations of the NSA PRISM program. At issue is whether the disclosure of EU citizens' data by Facebook and other Internet companies to the NSA violates the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and whether the EU-US "Safe Harbor" agreement provides "adequate" data protection. A decision is likely later this year. Schrems is the recipient of the 2013 EPIC International Privacy Champion Award. (Mar. 24, 2015)


On March 17, 2009, EPIC filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), urging an investigation into Google's cloud computing services to determine "the adequacy of the privacy and security safeguards." The complaint followed a reported security breach of Google Docs. EPIC observed that Google repeatedly assured consumers that their services stored user-generated data securely, but had opted to not encrypt the personal information stored or transmitted on its computer network by default.

On June 16, 2009, Christopher Soghoian wrote an open letter to Google CEO, Eric Schmidt that was joined by 37 researchers and academics in the fields of computer science, information security, and privacy law. The letter pointed out that Google had already employed encryption techniques to protect individuals' login information, but did not enable it to protect information transmitted over their network. The letter pointed out that, while the option to encrypt this information was available, it was difficult to locate, even for sophisticated users who were aware of what to look for.

Google opted to ignore both of these warnings.

On January 12, 2010, Google reported that the company had suffered a "highly sophisticated and coordinated" cyber attack originating from China. The attackers planted malicious code in Google's corporate networks, and resulted in the theft of Google's intellectual property, and at least the attempted access of the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. The following day, Google changed a key setting, causing all subsequent traffic to and from its electronic mail servers to be encrypted by default. On February 4, 2010, the Washington Post reported that Google had contacted the National Security Agency ("NSA") regarding the firm's security practices immediately following the attack. In addition, the Wall Street Journal stated that the NSA's general counsel had drafted a "cooperative research and development agreement" within 24 hours of Google's announcement of the attack, which authorized the Agency to "examine some of the data related to the intrusion into Google's systems."

EPIC's Freedom of Information Act Requests and Subsequent Lawsuit

On February 4, 2010, EPIC filed a Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") request with the National Security Agency ("NSA"). EPIC requested the following agency records:

  • All records concerning an agreement or similar basis for collaboration, final or draft, between the NSA and Google regarding cyber security;
  • All records of communication between NSA and Google concerning Gmail, including but not limited to Google's decision to fail to routinely encrypt Gmail messages prior to January 13, 2010; and
  • All records of communications regarding NSA's role in Google's decision regarding the failure to routinely deploy encryption for cloud-based computing service, such as Google Docs.

By letter dated March 10, the NSA acknowledged receipt of EPIC's FOIA Request and granted EPIC's request for a fee waiver. The NSA's letter invoked FOIA exemption b(3) and Section 6 of the National Security Agency Act in order to issue a Glomar response. A Glomar response is the Agency's act of neither confirming nor denying the existence of Agency records responsive to the Request.

On May 7, 2010, EPIC filed an administrative appeal stating that the NSA had failed to present factual evidence that the requested documents fell within Section 6 and that established FOIA exemptions could sufficiently conceal protected information. The NSA never replied to EPIC's appeal or produced responsive documents. EPIC filed a complaint in United States District Court for the District of Columbia on September 13, 2010. The NSA argued that the Agency was under no obligation to conduct a search prior to determining that any potentially responsive records would implicate the Agency's functions or activities. Judge Richard Leon deferred to the NSA's judgment in a Memorandum Opinion dated July 8, 2011. EPIC filed a Notice of Appeal in the D.C. Circuit Court on September 9, 2011. Oral argument is schedule for March 20, 2012 before Judge Brown, Judge Kavanaugh, and Judge Ginsburg.

The Glomar Doctrine

In a unique category of FOIA cases, an agency may issue a “Glomar response” and refuse to confirm or deny the existence of records. Gardels v. CIA, 689 F.2d 1100, 1103 (D.C. Cir. 1982); see also Miller v. Casey, 730 F.2d 773, 776-77 (D.C. Cir. 1984); Phillippi v. CIA, 546 F.2d 1009, 1012 (D.C. Cir. 1976). Courts uphold Glomar responses when “to answer the FOIA inquiry would cause harm cognizable under” an applicable statutory exemption. Gardels, 689 F.2d at 1103. Glomar responses must be tethered to a specific exemption. The agency must demonstrate that acknowledging the mere existence of responsive records would disclose exempt information. Wolf v. CIA, 473 F.3d 370, 374 (D.C. Cir. 2007).

In Glomar cases, courts may grant summary judgment on the basis of agency affidavits that contain “reasonable specificity of detail rather than merely conclusory statements, and if they are not called into question by contradictory evidence in the record or by evidence of agency bad faith.” Gardels, 689 F.2d at 1104-05 (citing Halperin v, CIA, 629 F.2d 144, 148 (D.C. Cir. 1980)). The supporting affidavit must give a “logical” justification for the Glomar response based on “general exemption review standards established in non-Glomar cases.” Wolf, 473 F.3d at 375. “Very importantly, ‘the burden is on the agency to sustain its action.’” Founding Church of Scientology of Washington, D.C., Inc. v. NSA, 610 F.2d 824, 830 (D.C. Cir. 1979). This Circuit has made clear that “‘[c]onclusory and generalized allegations of exemptions’ are unacceptable; if the court is unable to sustain nondivulgence on the basis of affidavits, in camera inspection may well be in order.” Wolf, 473 F.3d at 375.

Legal Documents

EPIC v. National Security Agency, Case No. 10-1533 (RJL) (D.D.C. filed Sept. 13, 2010)

EPIC v. National Security Agency, Case No. 11-5233 (D.C.Cir. filed Sept. 9, 2011)

Freedom of Information Act Documents


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