Google Asks U.S. Government to Allow More Data Transparency

By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2013-06-12

Google Asks U.S. Government to Allow More Data Transparency

Google is asking the United States government to allow it to report more fully on more of the government requests for private data that it receives, especially in light of the recent National Security Agency PRISM program controversy.

In a June 11 letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller, Google's chief legal officer David Drummond asked the government to allow Google to provide general information on data requests it receives under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Under present law, statistics on FISA data requests are not permitted to be disclosed as part of Google's twice-a-year Transparency Reports.

"Assertions in the press that our compliance with these requests gives the U.S. government unfettered access to our users' data are simply untrue," wrote Drummond. "However, government nondisclosure obligations regarding the number of FISA national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests, fuel that speculation."

Instead, argues Google, by giving more information, it would keep the process more open.

"We therefore ask you to help make it possible for Google 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," wrote Drummond. "Google's numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made. Google has nothing to hide."

In a June 7 story by The Guardian, it was reported that the NSA "has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants, according to a top secret document" obtained by the paper. "The NSA access is part of a previously undisclosed program called PRISM, which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats, the document says."

The story reported that the document claims "collection directly from the servers" of major U.S. service providers.

The disclosure started a firestorm of controversy about PRISM, privacy and exactly what kinds of data were being collected under it.

"The program facilitates extensive, in-depth surveillance on live communications and stored information," reported The Guardian. "The law allows for the targeting of any customers of participating firms who live outside the US, or those Americans whose communications include people outside the US."

The report came just after The Guardian had also reported on a "top-secret court order compelling telecoms provider Verizon to turn over the telephone records of millions of US customers."

Google Asks U.S. Government to Allow More Data Transparency

Drummond's letter to the U.S. government aims to help clarify what Google and other companies are actually providing to the government when data requests come in.

"We have always made clear that we comply with valid legal requests," he wrote. "And last week, the Director of National Intelligence acknowledged that service providers have received Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests."

Google has been compiling and releasing its so-called Transparency Reports since 2010 to keep the process transparent for users of its services so they can see what governments are asking for when they make data requests.

"Google appreciates that you authorized the recent disclosure of general numbers for national security letters," Drummond wrote. "There have been no adverse consequences arising from their publication, and in fact more companies are receiving your approval to do so as a result of Google's initiative. Transparency here will likewise serve the public interest without harming national security."

Facebook and Microsoft are making similar requests to disclose more information about the data requests they have been receiving from governments, according to a story in The New York Times.

"They made the request after revelations about the National Security Agency's secret Internet surveillance program, known as Prism, for collecting data from technology companies like e-mail messages, photos, stored documents, videos and online chats," the story reported. "The collection is legally authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which forbids companies from acknowledging the existence of requests or revealing any details about them."

Critics are loudly voicing objections and anger about the PRISM program as Congress is also posturing to take action about the disclosures, according to a June 11 report in The Guardian.

In January, Google's biannual Transparency Report disclosed that since 2009 it has seen a more than 70 percent increase in requests from governments worldwide for information about its users and their possible criminal activities.

For the six-month period ending Dec. 31, 2012, Google received 21,389 government requests for information about 33,634 users, including 8,438 requests involving 14,791 users by the United States government, according to Google.

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