Internet Security
A US government transparency report showed FBI requests for customer data from internet and telecommunication firms was up 50% in 2015 from 2014. iStock

There was a 50% year-over-year rise in data requests made by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 2015 to internet and telecommunications companies, apparently due to increased use of media platforms by terror outfits. A US government transparency report showed the FBI sent a total of 48,642 requests for customer records in 2015, of which a majority was regarding foreigners, a Justice Department memo sent to Congress reportedly revealed.

The FBI uses a tool called National Security Letters (NSLs) to send out requests for data to internet and telecommunication firms to collect phone numbers, email and IP addresses, web browsing histories and other information, linked to either individuals or organisations. NSLs are a type of subpoena authority, always accompanied by an open-ended gag order issued by the Justice Department, to solicit customer information from internet and telecom companies.

In 2015, the FBI made 48,642 data requests through NSLs, compared to 33,024 requests reported in 2014. A US government source was quoted as saying by Reuters that the rise in NSL requests is, to some extent, a result of increasing use of telecommunication media by militant groups such as Islamic State (Isis). The source said the terror groups use multiple accounts across different communication platforms like Twitter and Facebook to contact their personnel or recruit new ones.

The FBI issued 12,870 NSLs in 2015, compared to 16,348 issued in 2014. Despite the decline in issued NSLs, the information sought was higher as one NSL can contain multiple data requests such as a series of email addresses or telephone numbers linked to a particular investigation. As many as 31,863 data requests made in 2015 solicited information on a total of 2,053 foreign nationals, the Justice Department memo showed. The volume of data requested for US nationals saw a decline in 2015.

Sources familiar with the process were quoted as saying that the figures indicate general trends and may not reflect precise year-to-year statistics as several changes were incorporated in 2015 in the reporting process after a surveillance reform law was passed by Congress.