US allows cos to reveal information about Government data requests

DPA Washington | Updated on January 28, 2014 Published on January 28, 2014

The US Government will allow communication companies like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook to reveal more information about previously secret Government requests for customer data, the Justice Department said on Monday.

Revelations about surveillance programmes had prompted technology companies last year to call for greater leeway in sharing requests with clients that they had been bound by law to keep secret.

Several companies, including Google and Microsoft, had filed legal requests with the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court asking to be more transparent with the public about the requests.

The companies will be able to provide only general information about the requests after a six-month period.

For the first time, the companies can provide a breakdown of subpoenas known as national security letters frequently used by the FBI and requests under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). But that data can only be publicized in broad ranges of 1,000 requests — for example, that FISA had made 0 to 999 requests, or 1,000 to 1,999 requests.

Alternatively, the companies would be allowed to provide numbers in smaller gradations if they include all Government data requests, including those from the FBI, FISA, the National Security Agency (NSA) and other agencies — for example, in batches of 250 requests, without specifying which entity had made the request.

“Through these new reporting methods, communications providers will be permitted to disclose more information than ever before to their customers,” Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a statement.

The companies involved in the legal challenge issued a joint statement saying they were pleased with the development, but calling for even greater transparency.

“We filed our lawsuits because we believe that the public has a right to know about the volume and types of national security requests we receive,” they said.

“We’re pleased the Department of Justice has agreed that we and other providers can disclose this information. While this is a very positive step, we’ll continue to encourage Congress to take additional steps to address all of the reforms we believe are needed.” After the announcement, Apple reported that from January 1 to June 30, 2013, it had received a total of 0-to-249 national security orders.

“We did not receive any orders for bulk data,” Apple said. “The number of accounts involved in national security orders is infinitesimal relative to the hundreds of millions of accounts registered with Apple.” It said that conversations on Apple were protected by “end-to-end” encryption and that it does not store data on location, map searches or iPhone Siri requests.

President Barack Obama this month announced surveillance reforms after outrage at home and abroad over disclosures by former Government contractor Edward Snowden, who has taken refuge in Russia from US criminal prosecution.

A larger group of technology firms wrote a letter last month calling for broader surveillance reforms, including being allowed to publicise how often and why Governments seek user information. That information had previously been classified and the companies were not allowed to discuss it.

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Published on January 28, 2014
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