Feds to allow tech companies to release more details on government data requests

By End the Lie

Attorney General Eric Holder (Image credit: ryanjreilly/Flickr)

Attorney General Eric Holder (Image credit: ryanjreilly/Flickr)

The Department of Justice has agreed to ease the restrictions on tech companies’ attempts to publicly release statistics on certain data requests that were previously blocked by gag order.

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In the past, the transparency reports of various companies like Google could only provide a broad range of the number of National Security Letters (NSLs) the company had received from the government. They were blocked from providing any data on orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

However, in his speech 10 days ago, Obama outlined numerous surveillance reforms including a promise to “enable communications providers to make public more information than ever before about the orders that they have received to provide data to the government.”

That means that they will allow tech giants to be more transparent with their consumers about National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance, although the Justice Department’s announcement makes it clear that the figures will still be quite vague.

Companies will now be able to report the number of FISA orders they receive and the number of accounts affected by the orders, but only in bands of 1,000.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the agreement is “a result that we believe strikes an appropriate balance between the competing interests of protecting national security and furthering transparency,” in his letter to the lawyers for major tech companies.

“We look forward to continuing to discuss with you ways in which the government and industry can similarly find common ground on other issues raising by the surveillance debates of recent months,” Cole wrote.

However, there are many exceptions to the agreement.

It does not cover data collected in bulk by the NSA outside of the U.S., but only covers the data it gets directly from the companies, Reuters reports.

If a new communications platform is launched, companies need to wait two years before publicly mentioning a court order for information on the platform.

“The silence is designed to lull suspected militants into using, or continuing to use, new forms of communication,” according to Reuters.

If companies want to provide numbers more precise than the ranges of 1,000, they can exercise what the Obama administration calls “Option Two.”

This allows them two report “the total number of all national security process received, including all NSL’s and FISA orders, reported as a single number in the following bands: 0-249 and thereafter in bands of 250.”

The sacrifice in doing that would be that they cannot differentiate between NSLs and FISA orders, which, as Wired points out, are very different.

On Monday, Apple chose to use the Option Two route and revealed that they have received a total of 0-249 NSLs and FISA orders between Jan. 1, 2013 and June 30, 2013 from governments worldwide.

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One Response to Feds to allow tech companies to release more details on government data requests

  1. Jay Kenney January 27, 2014 at 6:49 PM

    So nothing really changes.

    Reply

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