The U.S. government has decided to release data annually on its secret spy orders and the number of people affected by them, the country’s intelligence chief said Thursday.
The government will release the total number of orders issued during the prior 12-month period, and the number of targets affected by the orders, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said in a statement on “IC on the record,” the DNI’s page on Tumblr.
The disclosures will be broken down under certain categories such as data requests under the business records provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and National Security Letters issued by the government, he added.
The move follows demands by lawmakers, rights groups and Internet companies that the government should release more information on the secret collection of data from telephone and Internet companies by the National Security Agency.
All goes back to Snowden
Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed through newspapers certain documents that suggested that the government had real-time access to content on servers of some Internet companies, under a surveillance program called Prism. The companies have denied their participation in the NSA program. The Guardian newspaper in the U.K. also published in June a copy of an order to Verizon by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in Washington, D.C., which required Verizon to provide call records or “telephony metadata” of its customers to the NSA on an ongoing daily basis.
Most of these data requests have been in the form of “gag orders,” which prohibit the recipients of data request orders from discussing them in public. Microsoft and Google have asked FISC to allow them to disclose aggregate numbers on FISA and related data requests by the government, but the U.S. Department of Justice has postponed replying to the pleas six times so far.
Internet companies like Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, and Microsoft have so far released aggregate figures for data requests from the government, but didn’t say how many were related to national security. The companies said they could not break out requests under FISA, because those figures were classified.
“Our ability to discuss these activities is limited by our need to protect intelligence sources and methods,” Clapper said in the statement.
He described FISA and national security letters as an “important part of our effort to keep the nation and its citizens safe.” Disclosing more detailed information about how they are used and to whom they are directed can help enemies avoid detection, he added.
Following criticism of the NSA surveillance program, President Barack Obama said earlier this month that his administration will appoint an independent board to review the country’s surveillance programs, and also add a privacy advocate to defend privacy in the FISA court when agencies ask the court for new surveillance orders. Obama also said he will work with the U.S. Congress to limit data collection by the NSA under the Patriot Act.