Tech companies continue their push to reveal more details about how often the U.S. government collects user information for national security purposes.
Yahoo and Facebook have now filed motions with the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, asking for the right to publish more statistics about national security requests. Microsoft and Google filed suits in August, and Google filed an amended motion on Monday.
Currently, tech firms are allowed to reveal aggregate statistics about government requests for user data. However, they are not allowed to break down how many of those requests are related to national security. All requests, whether they come from a city police department or from the NSA, are lumped together.
The big distinction is that U.S. intelligence agencies don’t have to go through the traditional court system to get a court order. Instead, these agencies can get a special warrant from the FISA Court, whose proceedings are held in secret. The requests are rarely turned down, and revelations about the NSA’s Prism program have alleged extensive data collection from major tech companies.
Tech companies such as Google have downplayed the extent of the data collection , but say they’re unable to allay users’ concerns without evidence. The government now says it will annually disclose FISA orders, national security letters, and other requests in aggregate, but tech companies want to be able to break out the number of national-security requests they’ve received. They also want to disclose how many of those requests are seeking actual content from users’ accounts.
What the Internet companies want
Companies like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Facebook hope that by disclosing more information, they’ll prove that very few users are being spied on—contrary to the earliest Prism reports—and repair their reputations.
“Google’s reputation and business has been, and continues to be, harmed by the false and misleading reports in the media, and Google’s users are concerned by the allegations,” Google’s motion says. “Google must respond to such claims with more than generalities. Moreover, these are matters of significant weight and importance, and transparency is critical to advancing public debate in a thoughtful and democratic manner.”
These suits represent the most aggressive move by tech companies to disclose national security requests, after negotiations with the government “ended in failure,” according to Microsoft. However, Yahoo and Google note that they will still meet with President Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology to voice their concerns.