Some of the most influential companies in Silicon Valley have unveiled data regarding the national security requests they have received from the US government, detailing how many requests they receive, how many the company responds to, and other details.
The Obama administration announced Monday it had come to an agreement with Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft to allow the companies to disclose some details about the surveillance requests targeting their customers.
Apple released its own transparency report last week.
US Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a joint statement that the tech companies are now authorized to disclose the “number of national security orders and requests issued to communication providers, the number of customer accounts targeted under those orders and requests and the underlying legal authorities.”
The companies have spent months fighting for such a deal after complaining that the National Security Agency dragnet exposed last year had hurt business.
“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,” the five companies said in a joint statement Monday. “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.”
Reports indicate that, when the first of the Edward Snowden leaks were publicized in June, the White House was reluctant to make any deals with Silicon Valley. But with media pressure mounting and shifting polls proving that a sizable number of Americans are skeptical about the NSA surveillance, administration officials told Politico the time to negotiate had come.
“While this aggregate data was properly classified until today, the office of the Director of National Intelligence, in consultation with other departments and agencies, has determined that the public interest in disclosing this information now outweighs the national security concerns that require its classification,” stated Holder and Clapper.
Facebook’s transparency report for the latter half of 2012 and the first six months of 2013 noted that only a “small fraction” of one percent of its users were the target of any surveillance requests.
LinkedIn received “between 0 and 249” national security-related requests in the first six months of 2013. Over the same time period, Microsoft said it was sent under 1,000 national security letters pertaining to fewer than 1,000 accounts.
However, the government still prohibits companies from disclosing surveillance details about a new product until two years after it was launched, a condition that has irked civil liberties advocates calling for wider change.
Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel and the company’s executive vice president for legal and corporate affairs, has said the government agreed to let the companies disclose requests “in bands of a thousand” and only six months after a request was made.
“Asking the public and policymakers to try to judge the appropriateness of the government’s surveillance practices based on a single, combined, rounded number is like asking a doctor to diagnose a patient’s shadow: only the grossest and most obvious problem, if even that, will be ever evident,” Kevin Bankston, policy director at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, told Politico.