Following months of heightened pressure to reform the U.S. National Security Agency’s global Internet and telephone spying programmes the Obama White House this week conceded pleas of tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft to disclose more information about government surveillance requests targeting their users.
This week U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a joint statement that under new arrangements the Internet companies would have the option to disclose 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.”
Since last June the revelations about the NSA’s mass collection of data from social media and telephone companies, made by whistleblower and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, raised concerns among users of these services and leaders of nations who had been spied upon.
However Mr. Snowden’s exposés, based on confidential NSA documents, subsequently revealed that the Agency had been directly collecting massive amounts of data via data centres and Internet “backbones” in some cases without the full knowledge of the company in question.
This led to Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, and LinkedIn coming together to file lawsuits with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, which authorises the NSA’s spying programmes, demanding permission to release data about the court’s data collection orders.
In the wake of this week’s decision to permit the release of such data the Internet companies agreed to withdraw their motions, reports noted.
In a joint statement the companies said, “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,” adding that they were “pleased the Department of Justice has agreed that we and other providers can disclose this information.”
The companies however also signalled their intention to keep up the pressure on the White House and Capitol Hill to get more reforms enacted on the NSA’s spying programmes. They said, “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.”
Until the most recent reform measure was announced the Internet companies were only permitted to disclose the number of administrative subpoenas, called “national security letters,” and that too only in increments of 1,000, making it impossible to know whether data had been collected from their e-mail provider once or 999 times.
However with the increased transparency now authorised, these companies can disclose the existence of FISA court orders, although they are still required to “choose between being more specific about the number of demands or about the type of demands.”
In particular, reports said, companies that opted to disclose the number of FISA orders and national security letters separately could do so “as long as they only publish increments of 1,000… Or, they can narrow the figure to increments of 250 if they lump FISA court orders and national security letters together.”
Despite the limited nature of the concession made by the administration this week Alex Abdo, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union said, “This is a victory for transparency and a critical step toward reining in excessive government surveillance… Congress should require the government to publish basic information about the full extent of its surveillance, including the significant amount of spying that happens without the tech companies’ involvement… so that Americans can decide for themselves whether the NSA’s spying has gone too far.”