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ACLU challenges FBI data tactic

WASHINGTON -- The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the FBI's use of expanded powers to compel Internet service providers to turn over information about their customers or subscribers. A lawsuit challenging secret FBI national security letters was filed April 6 in US District Court in New York but not made public until yesterday because of its extraordinary sensitivity.

The FBI can issue national security letters, or NSLs, without a judge's approval in terrorism and espionage cases. They require telephone companies, Internet service providers, banks, credit bureaus and other businesses to produce highly personal records about their customers or subscribers.

People who receive the letters are prohibited from disclosing to anyone that they did so. Because of this legal gag order, the ACLU was forced to reach an agreement with the Justice Department before a heavily edited version of the lawsuit could be unsealed.

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