After PRISM, Web giants seek to disclose FISA requests

Steven Loeb · June 12, 2013 · Short URL:

Google, Facebook, Microsoft want to show they are not rubber stamps for the government

(Updated to reflect comment from Microsoft)

Of them many potential victims of the PRISM surveillance scandal it might be easy to forget the numerous Internet companies, including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple, who were accused by early reports of essentially letting the government have unfiltered access to their servers.

All of them denied it, of course, and the government even released more details about the program, in which it stated that it "does not unilaterally obtain information from the servers of U.S. electronic communication service providers."

So, with their good names tarnished, what are these companies to do? Demand completely transparency in order to prove that they are not turning over users information to the government.

In an open letter to the offices of the Attorney General and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which was posted in a blog post on Tuesday, Google asked for permission to include the number of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) disclosures requested by the government in its Transparency Reports.

"We have always made clear that we comply with valid legal requests. And last week, the Director of National Intelligence acknowledged that service providers have received Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests," David Drummond, Chief Legal Officer at Google, wrote in the letter.

"Assertions in the press that our compliance with these requests gives the U.S. government unfettered access to our users’ data are simply untrue. However, government nondisclosure obligations regarding the number of FISA national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests, fuel that speculation."

Right now, Google released two different transparency reports: those for data requests from governments around the world, and those for removal requests. Right now, those requests that involve national security are not included in the data.

its easy to see what Google is trying to do here: it wants to prove that it does not simply rubber stamp requests made by the U.S. government. If you look at how often the company complies with those requests anyway, though, it does not really have much a leg to stand on.

In the latest report on data requests (which, once again, does not include those relating to matters of national security)  the United States government far outpaced the rest of the world with 8,438 in the second half of 2012 alone. And how often did Google give up at least some data? On 88% of those requests. 

So, I kind of feel like it does not matter all that much whether the government is taking the data directly, or if they have to ask Google first. They basically get everything they want anyway. Still, I suppose Google having at least some authority over what data is disseminated means something to someone, somewhere.

After it became known that Google had issued the request to release that data, Facebook followed suit, also issuing a statement saying that they too would like to publish the same information on FISA requests.

"As Mark said last week, we strongly encourage all governments to be much more transparent about all programs aimed at keeping the public safe. In the past, we have questioned the value of releasing a transparency report that, because of exactly these types of government restrictions on disclosure, is necessarily incomplete and therefore potentially misleading to users," Ted Ullyot, Facebook’s general counsel, wrote on Tuesday. 

"We would welcome the opportunity to provide a transparency report that allows us to share with those who use Facebook around the world a complete picture of the government requests we receive, and how we respond. We urge the United States government to help make that possible by allowing companies to include information about the size and scope of national security requests we receive, and look forward to publishing a report that includes that information."

Microsoft also joined in on the chorus to release these figures.

"Permitting greater transparency on the aggregate volume and scope of national security requests, including FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) orders, would help the community understand and debate these important issues. Our recent report went as far as we legally could and the government should take action to allow companies to provide additional transparency," a Microsoft spokesperson told VatorNews.

People have enough trouble trusting that their information is safe on the Internet, and the PRISM disclosures last week put an even bigger dent. I think that Google, Facebook and Microsoft are going to have to do more than just tell its user how often they comply with government requests for data.

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