Apple, Google, Facebook Join Civil Liberties Groups for NSA Transparency Push

The tech giants are asking for permission to report the number of requests they receive under the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

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NSA / Reuters

The National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Md.

The largest Internet companies in the United States have joined forces with top civil liberties groups to call on the White House and Congress to increase the transparency surrounding the government’s controversial National Security Agency surveillance programs. Apple, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft and Twitter are among the tech giants that have signed a letter to the feds, asking for the right to disclose more information about national security data requests. Notably absent are the nation’s largest phone companies, including AT&T and Verizon Wireless, which have remained silent about their participation in the government’s snooping program.

The tech giants’ call for greater transparency represents their latest effort to push back against the notion that they allow the government unfettered or “direct” access to their servers as part of a U.S. intelligence system called PRISM, which was revealed in press reports last month. Google in particular has vehemently denied that it grants the government such access, and last month petitioned a secret U.S. national-security court to relax restrictions on the information it can reveal about government data requests made under the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act (FISA), claiming such restrictions violate the company’s right to free speech under the First Amendment. Microsoft has made a similar request.

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Google and the other Internet giants have come under intense scrutiny following reports that the NSA uses PRISM to examine data — including e-mails, videos and online chats — that it collects from big Internet companies. But the tech giants are currently prohibited from revealing anything about the requests they receive for such information, because FISA requests are classified top-secret, and the companies are barred from even discussing them. In a blog post last month, Google executives denied giving the government direct access to company servers and said they had never even heard of the PRISM program before it was revealed in the media.

For years, Google has disclosed the number of standard data requests it receives from law enforcement agencies on its Transparency Report. (Microsoft publishes a similar report.) In March, Google become the first tech giant to publish information about the number of National Security Letters (NSLs) it receives and the number of user accounts affected by those requests. (NSLs are requests for communications records made by the FBI when the government is conducting national-security investigations. FISA requests involve user content and are even more sensitive than NSLs.) In Thursday’s letter, the companies are requesting permission to tell the public the number of requests they receive under Section 215 of the Patriot Act and Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act.

“Basic numerical data about criminal law enforcement surveillance has been published for years without disrupting investigations or tipping off Tony Soprano,” Kevin Bankston, senior counsel and director of free expression at the Center for Democracy & Technology, a D.C.-based non-profit that organized the coalition, said in a statement. “Publishing similar data about national security surveillance won’t make the American people less secure — only more informed.” Specifically, the companies are asking for permission to publish the number of government requests for information about their users; the number of individuals, accounts, or devices for which information was requested; and the number of requests that sought communications content, basic subscriber information, or other information.

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“This information about how and how often the government is using these legal authorities is important to the American people, who are entitled to have an informed public debate about the appropriateness of those authorities and their use,” wrote the coalition, which includes the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of The Press, Public Knowledge, the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute and Reporters Without Borders. The group also includes prominent investment firms Union Square Ventures, Y Combinator, and New Atlantic Ventures.

In all, more than 60 companies, investors, civil liberties groups and trade groups have signed the letter, which was sent to the government on Thursday. “Just as the United States has long been an innovator when it comes to the Internet and products and services that rely upon the Internet, so too should it be an innovator when it comes to creating mechanisms to ensure that government is transparent, accountable, and respectful of civil liberties and human rights,” the coalition wrote. It is also asking the government to publish its own reports about the information it collects from tech and telecom companies. 

The coalition has attracted the support of influential lawmakers, including Reps. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, and James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican who sponsored the Patriot Act. This week, they asked Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to allow tech companies more flexibility to publicly disclose the number of surveillance requests. “We are skeptical that such an authorization would endanger the national security,” the lawmakers wrote. “The unnecessarily broad restraint on transparency the U.S. government has hitherto imposed in connection with foreign intelligence surveillance orders undermines trust in a crucial sector of the domestic economy and impedes informed debate on an issue of intense public interest.”

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The coalition’s letter comes amid growing bipartisan outrage over the extent of the government’s secret surveillance programs. On Wednesday, lawmakers grilled Obama administration officials about the programs. During a testy hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, Sensenbrenner said that Congress did not intend to allow the government to obtain the phone records of millions of Americans and store them in a huge database, as is currently occurring. When Deputy Attorney General James Cole tried to explain why such a program is necessary, Sensenbrenner cut him off, saying: “Unless you realize you’ve got a problem, this is not going to be renewed.”

Sen. Al Franken, the Minnesota Democrat, told the New York Times that he planned to introduce legislation in the Senate requiring public disclosure of surveillance requests along the lines of the coalition’s request. And Rep. Rick Larsen, a Washington Democrat, told the paper that he was planning to introduce similar legislation in the House. Meanwhile, Rep. Justin Amash, an Illinois Republican, launched a bid this week to defund one federal surveillance program by offering an amendment to a defense appropriations bill in the House. It’s unclear when the House will take up the defense bill, which remains stalled.

In contrast to the big tech companies, the nation’s largest phone companies, including AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint, are conspicuously absent from the coalition asking for increased transparency. For years, the phone companies have been participating in government surveillance efforts, including a program authorized by the Patriot Act, which collects the phone records of tens of millions of U.S. citizens, including the number called, when the call was made, and the length of the conversation. Earlier this month, each of the three telecom giants declined to comment on their participation in NSA surveillance programs.