Tech Companies Press Government To Reveal Extent Of User Data Requests

When Edward Snowden revealed the extent to which the NSA monitors civilians’ digital activities, government officials defended the actions on the grounds that they were necessary to protect national security. Precisely how much of this monitoring actually dealt directly with national security hasn’t been revealed—but that might be about to change.

Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook all filed petitions with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court today, demanding that they be permitted to reveal to the public the full extent of government requests for user data. In particular, the companies want to reveal how many of those requests were ostensibly related to national security, which the courts have previously blocked them from doing.

“In June, as a result of discussions with the U.S. government, we and a number of other companies were permitted to release, within a range, the total number of law enforcement requests for user data we received in a given period,” an attorney for Facebook wrote today in a blog post. “But that one step is not enough...we have not been permitted to specify even approximately how many of those requests may be national security-related, nor have we been permitted to provide information identifying the number of those requests that seek the content of users’ accounts.”

Yahoo’s general counsel echoed those sentiments, writing that “the U.S. Government’s important responsibility to protect public safety can be carried out without precluding Internet companies from sharing the number of national security requests they may receive.”

“Ultimately, withholding such information breeds mistrust and suspicion—both of the United States and of companies that must comply with government legal directives” wrote Ron Bell on the company’s Tumblr.

Yahoo and Google both attended a meeting today with President Obama's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology. The meeting, comprised of “a high-level group of experts,” will review the government’s surveillance practices and, in two months, present a report to Obama on how the U.S. “can employ its technical collection capabilities in a way that optimally protects our national security and advances our foreign policy while respecting our commitment to privacy and civil liberties.”