Tech Giants Disclose More on Government Data Requests
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Facebook, Google, Microsoft and LinkedIn released new information about the number of data requests they receive from law enforcement, just one week after reaching a new arrangement with the federal government.
Under the new agreement, companies will now be able to disclose, to the nearest 1,000, how many National Security Letters they have received asking for user account information. They’ll also be able to say how many Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court requests they’ve received, again to the nearest 1,000.
Before the new deal with the government, companies were forbidden from even acknowledging that they had received FISA requests or NSA letters. Google has gradually led the industry in pushing for greater disclosure allowances over time, having first introduced its quarterly Transparency Reports years ago. Since then, the types of data disclosures allowed have steadily broadened, though ever so slightly.
The renewed push for greater transparency comes in the wake of documents and information distributed by former NSA operative Edward Snowden, who made headlines last summer after revealing the extent to which the U.S. government carries out surveillance on its citizens and overseas individuals.
“The data we are releasing today should be understood against the backdrop of the transparency reports we have issued over the past nine months,” Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel, said in a blog post Monday. “Last summer, in the immediate wake of sensationalist and inaccurate media accounts of purported government access to Facebook user data, we published data showing that, in the last six months of 2012, a small fraction of one percent of Facebook user accounts were the subject of any government data requests of any kind, national security-related or otherwise. … We continue to believe the information included in these reports was an important contribution to the public debate over government surveillance practices, but it was limited.”
Along with the continued lobbying of government officials in private, technology giants such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Yahoo, among others, formed an advocacy group late last year — ReformGovernmentSurveillance.com — to press the Obama administration on reconsidering its methods and policies surrounding data collection. President Obama had promised to shed some light on his ideas for NSA reform in a recent address, but it left many with more questions than answers and drew a lukewarm response from the industry.
In a blog post Monday, Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith offered a tough critique of the Obama administration and its lack of clarity on NSA data collection methods — such as tapping into the cables connecting overseas data centers.
“Despite the President’s reform efforts and our ability to publish more information, there has not yet been any public commitment by either the U.S. or other governments to renounce the attempted hacking of Internet companies,” Smith wrote. “We believe the Constitution requires that our government seek information from American companies within the rule of law. We’ll therefore continue to press for more on this point, in collaboration with others across our industry.”
In Monday’s round of data disclosures, Facebook said it received anywhere from zero to 6,000 NSA and FISA requests for user data (both content and non-content specific) over the one-year period from July 2012 to July 2013, potentially affecting the accounts of up to 15,000 users.
During that same one-year period, Google received anywhere from zero to 4,000 FISA requests, potentially affecting the accounts of up to 25,000 users.
LinkedIn only reported results over a six-month period from Jan. 1 to June 1, 2013, during which the company received a total of 83 government data requests, potentially affecting the accounts of 97 users. LinkedIn said it complied with about half of those requests.
And finally, from July 2012 to June 2013, Microsoft received up to 6,000 data requests, potentially affecting up to 37,000 user accounts.