Tech giant Google has asked the U.S. Department of Justice for permission to publish the number of national-security information requests it receives from the government, including requests made under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), one of the laws at the heart of recent blockbuster disclosures about government data collection.
Even before the recent government-snooping controversy erupted, civil-liberties advocates had asked the company to disclose FISA requests in the interest of transparency. But Google has a self-serving reason to do so as well: the tech giant wants to prove that it doesn’t give the government “unfettered access” to the vast trove of data it collects from its users.
Google has come under scrutiny following recent reports that the National Security Agency (NSA) uses a secret surveillance program, called PRISM, to examine data — including e-mails, videos and online chats — that it collects from the tech giant and other big Internet companies. But Google is currently prohibited from revealing anything about the requests it receives for such information, because FISA requests — the method by which the government asks for the data — are classified top secret, and Google is barred from discussing them.
In a letter sent to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller, Google’s chief legal officer David Drummond asked to be allowed “to publish in our Transparency Report aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures — in terms of both the number we receive and their scope.” The letter, published on Google’s blog, is noteworthy in itself, because it is the first time Google has even acknowledged that it receives national-security FISA requests.
Google’s letter to the government is part of the company’s campaign to push back against media reports that it provides the government unfettered or “direct access” to the company’s servers, or to data it keeps on the activities of its users. In a blog post last Friday, Drummond and Google CEO Larry Page denied giving the government such access and said that the company had never even heard of the PRISM program. It’s important to note that Google is not requesting permission to publish the content of FISA requests, only the number and scope of the requests it receives.
Civil-liberties and privacy experts praised Google’s request. “President Obama said he wanted to have a debate on privacy and security,” said Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights group focused on civil liberties, free speech and privacy law. “If we’re going to have this debate, transparency is vital. And one piece of this puzzle would be transparency reports about the FISA requests that Google and other companies receive.”
In its letter sent to the government Tuesday, Google said that if it were able to publish information about the FISA requests, it would become evident that it pushes back against the government. “Google’s numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made,” Drummond wrote. “Google has nothing to hide.” Drummond added: “We have consistently pushed back on overly broad government requests for our users’ data.”
As e-mail, instant messaging, Web search and social networking have become everyday aspects of American life, privacy advocates have expressed concern that these massive troves of data could be used by the government to track American citizens. The recent NSA disclosures have reinforced these fears, threatening to undermine confidence in companies like Google that rely on consumers to trust that they will safeguard user data. “Google has worked tremendously hard over the past fifteen years to earn our users’ trust,” Drummond wrote.
On Google’s Transparency Report, the company discloses the number of removal and user-data requests it receives from copyright owners and governments. In March, Google began publishing information about the number of National Security Letters (NSLs) that the company receives as well as the number of user accounts affected by those requests. (NSLs are requests for communications records by the FBI when the government is conducting national-security investigations. FISA requests involve user content and are even more sensitive than NSLs.)
Following Google’s letter, Microsoft issued a similar request. “Permitting greater transparency on the aggregate volume and scope of national security requests, including FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) orders, would help the community understand and debate these important issues,” a Microsoft spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement. “Our recent report went as far as we legally could and the government should take action to allow companies to provide additional transparency.”
Facebook followed suit shortly thereafter. “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,” Ted Ullyot, Facebook’s general counsel, said in an e-mailed statement. “We urge the United States government to help make that possible by allowing companies to include information about the size and scope of national security requests we receive, and look forward to publishing a report that includes that information.”
Internet-policy expert and privacy advocate Lauren Weinstein urged the government to grant the Internet companies’ request. “When the government doesn’t trust the American people even in broad terms to know the aggregate scope and numbers of national security FISA demands — we’re not talking about details — it becomes impossible for Web firms that receive these demands to prove their innocence in the face of conspiracy theories and other false accusations,” Weinstein said in an e-mail. “The appearance is that the government is simply concerned about how we’d react to the knowledge. The American people are not the enemy.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice did not immediately return a request for comment.
Update June 12, 12 p.m. EST: A DOJ spokesman says: “The department has received the letter from the chief legal officer at Google. We are in the process of reviewing their request.”