The target of a federal investigation that set off a more than decadelong battle over secret subpoenas called national security letters was a Muslim prison reform advocate the FBI wanted to become an informant.
Nick Merrill, who fought to make the information public, revealed that information for the first time at a hacker conference in New York City.
Merrill was the head of an internet hosting company when the controversy began. He had launched a small New York-based internet service provider called Calyx Internet Access in the 1990s, and he also consulted on digital security.
In 2004, the FBI sent him a national security letter demanding extensive records on one of his customers.
National security letters are secret subpoenas the FBI can send to internet and technology companies to demand various types of records about their customers’ online behaviors without ever getting a court order. In Merrill’s case, that request was particularly broad — for browsing records, email address information, billing information, and more.
In response, Merrill launched a court battle challenging the constitutionality of the letter itself, and then, when the FBI withdrew it, to free himself from the gag order forbidding him from ever speaking about it.