Internet giants call for transparency in government surveillance requests

Filed Under: Facebook, Featured, Google, Law & order, Microsoft, Privacy, Twitter

Facebook and Microsoft - two companies tagged as giving the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and National Security Agency (NSA) direct access to their servers for surveillance purposes - are echoing Google's call for transparency in government surveillance requests.

Google on Tuesday sent a letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder and the FBI and published this copy on its Public Policy blog.

Letter from Google to US govt 500.jpg

In the letter, Google's chief legal officer, David Drummond, wrote to Holder seeking permission to publish "aggregate numbers of national security requests, including Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act [FISA] disclosures".

Facebook's General Counsel Ted Ullyot chimed in with a post saying that the company would love to give a transparency report, which both Google and Twitter now do, but Facebook does not.

But such a report would by necessity be misleading, Ullyot wrote, given that government restrictions on disclosure would poke so many holes in it:

"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.

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."

Such nondisclosure obligations regarding how many FISA requests Google receives and the number of user accounts they cover just fuel speculation that "our compliance with these requests gives the U.S. government unfettered access to [Google] users' data," which is false, Drummond wrote in his letter.

According to the BBC, Microsoft has also said that greater transparency on government requests for information "would help the community understand and debate these important issues''.

For whatever reason, Twitter was absent from the initial list of nine major internet companies specified as giving the government direct access to servers in information leaked to the Washington Post and the Guardian by (likely soon to be "former") Booz Allen Hamilton employee Edward Snowden.

Regardless, on Tuesday, Twitter threw its support behind those who've demanded more transparency around national security letters (NSLs), such as Google, Senator Jeff Merkley (who, along with 7 other senators of both parties, is pushing a bill to declassify FISA court rulings), and others.

Twitter General Counsel Alex Macgillivray's Twitter message to that effect:

Alex Macgillivray tweet

Completely agree with @Google, @SenJeffMerkley & others - we'd like more NSL transparency and @Twitter supports efforts to make that happen

Outrage over the surveillance program, known as PRISM*, continues to ignite, regardless of the Obama administration's strenuous efforts to poo-poo the media attention and public reaction sparked by what many interpret as the we-eavesdrop-on-everything program.

For its part, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit against the government over its "dragnet" collection of domestic phone call logs, saying that it's illegal and asking a judge to order that the program be stopped and its records purged.

Beyond calling for more transparency, the idea of a back door into their servers has seemingly outraged the nine internet companies.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, for one, crafted a personal post on Friday to both ask for more transparency and to address what he called "outrageous press reports about PRISM."*

Message from Zuckerberg on PRISM

From his post:

"We have never received a blanket request or court order from any government agency asking for information or metadata in bulk, like the one Verizon reportedly received. And if we did, we would fight it aggressively. We hadn't even heard of PRISM before yesterday."

At this point, much of the vehement denial over having a back door to servers could well be attributed to how, exactly, one defines "back door".

The New York Times, among others, has sketched out how the information hand-off takes place:

Instead of adding a back door to their servers, the companies were essentially asked to erect a locked mailbox and give the government the key....The data shared in these ways, the people said, is shared after company lawyers have reviewed the FISA request according to company practice. It is not sent automatically or in bulk, and the government does not have full access to company servers. Instead, they said, it is a more secure and efficient way to hand over the data.

....FISA orders can range from inquiries about specific people to a broad sweep for intelligence, like logs of certain search terms, lawyers who work with the orders said. There were 1,856 such requests last year, an increase of 6 percent from the year before.

*In light of director of national intelligence James R. Clapper's corrections [PDF] about the project, we know that PRISM is just the name of the computer system that makes the data-Hoover-machine run and not the name of the project itself.

But given that the acronym for the program's real name - CIPS702FISA, or the Collection of Intelligence Pursuant to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act - is unpronounceable, I think I'll just pretend, until somebody thinks up a more elegant name, that this whole thing is still called PRISM.


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6 Responses to Internet giants call for transparency in government surveillance requests

  1. coachdaddyblogger · 413 days ago

    I like safety more than privacy. If they'd like, I'll send the government all my metadata myself. It'd only be slightly embarrassing.

    • Mrs. W · 412 days ago

      Privacy is safety. That's why we have a Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment is there to protect my First Amendment rights to associate with anyone I please and to disagree with my government without fearing I'll be hauled off to jail on some trumped-up charges.

      Remember McCarthyism, in which associating with the wrong people (suspected communists) could wreck your life for no good reason. That doesn't seem safe to me. Substitute in "suspected terrorists" and you can see where this might lead.

      Big data doesn't care that you were just a classmate of the Tsarnaev brothers and needed help with some assignments, and that's why your phone number showed up in their call logs a few times.

      I'd guarantee that there's something equally innocent in your past that could be twisted if there were enough motivation to do so.

    • 2072 · 412 days ago

      Here is a beautiful quote from Benjamin Franklin:

      "Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."

  2. Joe Dirt · 413 days ago

    Spin, spin, spin.
    You can see that they are also siphoning data from taps at the ISPs.
    So, yes, technically Google did not grant total access to the NSA. But the NSA only asks for data that they didn't siphon off of some tap.

  3. 2072 · 412 days ago

    If I were the NSA I would have spies inside Google, Facebook, etc... working as sys admins and pay them graciously to implement backdoors from the inside for us to access undetected... FISA requests are just here to put up a good show... It's just like with the ENIGMA code cracking, we had to let the Nazis continue to sink a few boats to hide the fact that their encryption system had become completely useless.

    So yes, they don't have backdoors, so they think...

  4. herzco · 412 days ago

    "Google's call for transparency" - Funny, considering how much cloak and dagger stuff THEY are up to behind the scenes.

    Also, what would the public get in these types of disclosures? Such disclosures would likely not be understandable as almost no one would know how to parse the information. Kind of akin to throwing the entire OED at someone, but having removed the word order.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.