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Boyd, the Justice spokesman, said the changes being proposed will not allow the government to obtain or collect new categories of information; rather it simply seeks to clarify what Congress intended when the statute was amended in 1993, he argued.

Critics, however, point to a 2008 opinion by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel which found that the FBI’s reach with national security letters extends only as far as getting a person’s name, address, the period in which they were a customer and the numbers dialed on a telephone or to that phone.

The problem the FBI has been having is that some providers, relying on the 2008 Justice opinion — issued during the Bush administration — have refused to turn over Internet records such as information about who a person e-mails and who has e-mailed them and information about a person’s Web surfing history.

To deal with the issue, there’s no need to change the law since the FBI has the authority to obtain the same information with a court order issued under a broad section of the Patriot Act, said Gregory Nojeim, director of the Project on Freedom, Security and Technology at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit Internet privacy group.

The critics say the proposed change would allow the FBI to remove federal judges and courts from scrutiny of its requests for sensitive information.

“The implications of the proposal are that no court is deciding whether even that low standard of ‘relevance’ is met,” said Nojeim. “The FBI uses national security letters to find not just who the target of an investigation e-mailed, but also who those people e-mailed and who e-mailed them.”