Internet Giants, Amid Grumbling, Release New Data on Government Spying

Google, Microsoft, and other companies are thrilled to be able to tell their customers more about the government’s surveillance orders — but are still seeking more transparency.

A sign is posted on the exterior of Google headquarters on January 30, 2014 in Mountain View, California.  
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
Feb. 3, 2014, 10:50 a.m.

Sev­er­al in­ter­net be­hemoths re­leased up­dated data Monday de­tail­ing in broad terms the amount of na­tion­al se­cur­ity re­quests for user data they have re­ceived from the gov­ern­ment, part of trans­par­ency re­ports re­cently per­mit­ted by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The re­ports — from Google, Mi­crosoft, Face­book, Linked­In, and Ya­hoo — provide in­form­a­tion on the num­ber of gov­ern­ment re­quests for user data, the amount of users af­fected by those re­quests, and the per­cent­age of re­quests that yiel­ded a re­sponse. Their dis­clos­ures join a sim­il­ar one pub­lished last week by Apple.

But the data, de­tail­ing an ag­greg­ate sweep of six-month in­ter­vals, is only al­lowed to be lis­ted in “bands of 1,000,” per gov­ern­ment in­struc­tions. For ex­ample, in de­tail­ing its most re­cent re­port cov­er­ing Janu­ary to June 2013, Mi­crosoft ex­plains that it re­ceived few­er than 1,000 or­ders “seek­ing dis­clos­ure of cus­tom­er con­tent” and that those or­ders “re­lated to between 15,000 and 15,999” ac­counts.

In dis­clos­ing the re­cords de­tail­ing gov­ern­ment-data re­quests, the tech gi­ants opined that they need to dis­close more spe­cif­ic data in or­der to fully calm the rising tide of pri­vacy and civil-liberty con­cerns users have ex­pressed in the wake of the Ed­ward Snowden leaks.

“Pub­lish­ing these num­bers is a step in the right dir­ec­tion, and speaks to the prin­ciples for re­form that we an­nounced with oth­er com­pan­ies last Decem­ber,” Google said in a blog post. “But we still be­lieve more trans­par­ency is needed so every­one can bet­ter un­der­stand how sur­veil­lance laws work and de­cide wheth­er or not they serve the pub­lic in­terest.”

Google called on Con­gress to ad­opt stronger trans­par­ency meas­ures and said it wants to be able to dis­close “pre­cise num­bers and types of re­quests we re­ceive, as well as the num­ber of users they af­fect in a timely way.”

Mi­crosoft’s Brad Smith, ex­ec­ut­ive vice pres­id­ent of leg­al and cor­por­ate af­fairs, was even harsh­er in his blog post:

“[N]oth­ing in today’s re­port min­im­izes the sig­ni­fic­ance of ef­forts by gov­ern­ments to ob­tain cus­tom­er in­form­a­tion out­side leg­al pro­cess. Since the Wash­ing­ton Post re­por­ted in Oc­to­ber about the pur­por­ted hack­ing of cables run­ning between data cen­ters of some of our com­pet­it­ors, this has been and re­mains a ma­jor con­cern across the tech sec­tor…. However, 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. We be­lieve the Con­sti­tu­tion re­quires that our gov­ern­ment seek in­form­a­tion from Amer­ic­an com­pan­ies with­in the rule of law.”

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced last week that it would al­low In­ter­net com­pan­ies to dis­close gov­ern­ment data re­quests for con­sumer in­form­a­tion, a policy change res­ult­ing from ne­go­ti­ations between the tech com­pan­ies that had filed law­suits ar­guing for more lee­way in shar­ing with users in­form­a­tion about gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance ap­proved via the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court.

The an­nounce­ment was widely praised as a ne­ces­sary step for­ward by pri­vacy ad­voc­ates, though many, in­clud­ing sev­er­al mem­bers of Con­gress, quickly cau­tioned that more needed to be done. Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said that “fur­ther changes still must be en­acted in­to law by Con­gress.”

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