Google Petitions US Government to Lift Gag Order on NSA Data

Google is asking a secretive U.S. court to allow it to provide more disclosure about the data requests made about private citizens by the U.S. government.

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Google is asking the secretive United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to allow the company to disclose more information about the data inquiries Google receives from U.S. government agencies.

In a six-page motion filed June 18 by attorneys for Google, the company said it is making the request so that it can fight misleading media stories about how it shares some generic user data with the government.

"On June 6, 2013, The Guardian newspaper published a story mischaracterizing the scope and nature of Google's receipt of and compliance with foreign intelligence surveillance requests," the complaint states. "In particular, the story falsely alleged that Google provides the U.S. government with 'direct access' to its systems, allowing the government unfettered access to the records and communications of millions of users.

"The Washington Post also published a misleading story that day, alleging that the U.S. government is 'lapping directly into' Google's central servers in order to surreptitiously obtain user records and communication," the compliant continues.

Google on June 12 had first asked the U.S. 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 letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Federal Bureau of Investigation 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.

"In light of the intense public interest generated by The Guardian's and Post's erroneous
articles, and others that have followed them, Google seeks to increase its transparency with users and the public regarding its receipt of national security requests, if any," Google stated in its motion. "Google's reputation and business has been harmed by the false or misleading reports in the media, and Google's users are concerned by the allegations.

"Google must respond to such claims with more than generalities. Moreover, these are matters of significant weight and importance, and transparency is critical to advancing public debate in a thoughtful and democratic manner," the Google motion continued.

To resolve the concerns about the data Google discloses as part of government requests, the company said it wants to add more information to its regularly issued "Transparency Reports" so that citizens know how the company is dealing with their data.

"In particular, Google seeks a declaratory judgment that Google has a right under the First Amendment to publish, and that no applicable law or regulation prohibits Google from
publishing, two aggregate unclassified numbers: (1) the total number of FISA requests it receives, if any; and (2) the total number of users or accounts encompassed within such requests," the motion states. "Google's publication would disclose numbers as part of the regular Transparency Report publication cycle for National Security Letters, which covers data over calendar year time periods."

Google is asking the court to rule that it may disclose that additional information without compromising national security and in adherence with its First Amendment rights.

"We have long pushed for transparency so users can better understand the extent to which governments request their data—and Google was the first company to release numbers for National Security Letters," a Google spokesperson told eWEEK. "However, greater transparency is needed, so today we have petitioned the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to allow us to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures, separately. Lumping national security requests together with criminal requests would be a backward step for Google and our users."

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.

Critics are loudly voicing objections and anger about the PRISM program as Congress is also posturing to take action about the disclosures.

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.