Government Lets Internet Giants Disclose More About NSA Data Requests

Google and others in the tech community said they are “pleased” with the administration’s decision to allow them to share details about the government’s data requests.

President Barack Obama speaks about the National Security Agency (NSA) and intelligence agencies surveillance techniques at the US Department of Justice in Washington, DC, January 17, 2014.
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
Jan. 27, 2014, 12:07 p.m.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced Monday that it will per­mit In­ter­net com­pan­ies to dis­close gov­ern­ment data re­quests for con­sumer in­form­a­tion.

At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er and Dir­ect­or of Na­tion­al In­tel­li­gence James Clap­per an­nounced the policy change in a joint state­ment that the ad­min­is­tra­tion “is act­ing to al­low more de­tailed dis­clos­ures about the num­ber of na­tion­al se­cur­ity or­ders and re­quests is­sued to com­mu­nic­a­tions pro­viders, the num­ber of cus­tom­er ac­counts tar­geted un­der those or­ders and re­quests, and the un­der­ly­ing leg­al au­thor­it­ies.”

The data gleaned from na­tion­al se­cur­ity or­ders had been clas­si­fied un­til Monday, but the ad­min­is­tra­tion de­cided the “pub­lic in­terest in dis­clos­ing the in­form­a­tion now out­weighs the na­tion­al se­cur­ity con­cerns that re­quired its clas­si­fic­a­tion,” the state­ment said.

The policy change ap­pears to be the res­ult of ne­go­ti­ations brokered with key tech­no­logy com­pan­ies that had filed law­suits against the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment ar­guing they should be al­lowed to dis­close more in­form­a­tion about Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency sur­veil­lance of their users.

“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,” Face­book, Google, Linked­In, Mi­crosoft, and Ya­hoo re­spon­ded in a joint state­ment ob­tained by Na­tion­al Journ­al. “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.”

The gov­ern­ment will al­low com­pan­ies to choose between two op­tions when in­form­ing cus­tom­ers about data re­quests. The first op­tion al­lows for the dis­clos­ure of the num­ber of na­tion­al se­cur­ity let­ters re­ceived, For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Act or­ders for con­tent and “non-con­tent,” and the num­ber of cus­tom­ers whose data is tar­geted—all with­in “bands of 1,000” be­gin­ning with a range of 0 to 999. FISA and NSL num­bers may be pub­lished every six months.

The second op­tion al­lows com­pan­ies to re­port data de­tail­ing the total num­ber of “all na­tion­al se­cur­ity pro­cess re­ceived” and cus­tom­ers tar­getered in a single num­ber with­in a band of 250, be­gin­ning with a range of 0 to 249.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion said the new re­port­ing meth­ods are an im­port­ant step that will help as­suage con­cerns from com­mu­nic­a­tions pro­viders and the pub­lic. Hold­er and Clap­per’s let­ter also noted that “ad­di­tion­al steps must be taken in or­der to fully im­ple­ment the re­forms dir­ec­ted by the pres­id­ent.”

Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Chair­man Patrick Leahy, a Ver­mont Demo­crat, wel­comed the an­nounce­ment, but ad­ded that “fur­ther changes still must be en­acted in­to law by Con­gress.”

Alex Abdo, a staff at­tor­ney with the Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on, quickly hailed the de­cision as “a vic­tory for trans­par­ency and a crit­ic­al step to­ward rein­ing in ex­cess­ive gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance.”

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