Google will be free to tell the American public how often it has been solicited by the federal government to provide sensitive customer information in response to national security threats.
The Obama administration has loosened a gag order that had barred technology companies from publicizing such information. The move comes a week after President Obama made a speech promising more transparency in the National Security Agency’s collection of telephone data. The deal must still be approved by a judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees the NSA’s program.
“This is a victory for transparency and a critical step toward reining in excessive government surveillance,” said Alex Abdo, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. “Companies must be allowed to report basic information about what they’re giving the government so that Americans can decide for themselves whether the NSA’s spying has gone too far.”
The administration will allow technology companies to disclose a “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,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a joint statement Monday.
The change follows former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaking documents last summer showing that the government has the ability to aggregate far more consumer Internet and phone data than previously thought. After the leaks, technology companies such as Google, Yahoo and Facebook faced public pressure to reveal their cooperation in the government’s collection of data.
Google, in particular, engaged in a high-profile legal showdown with the federal government in June by asking the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to ease its gag order on the data requests, arguing that it has a constitutional right to speak about information it is forced to give the government. Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook and LinkedIn later joined in with similar complaints. The companies agreed Monday to withdraw their motions.
The companies said the administration’s loosening of the gag order is a good first step in achieving the transparency that they desire.
“We filed our lawsuits because we believe that the public has a right to know about the volume and types of national security requests that we receive,” the companies said in a joint statement. “We’re pleased the Department of Justice has agreed that we and other providers can disclose this information. 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.”
The terms of the deal aim to find an accord between the federal government’s need to keep some of its investigations secret and the technology companies’ need to explain their policies to consumers.
Under the new guidelines, a company will be able to report in general terms how many National Security Letters from the FBI or orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court it receives. For example, if a company received 3,100 requests, it could report it had between 3,000 to 4,000 requests for information. It also will be able to report in broad numbers how many customers were affected by such requests.
Companies will be allowed to share this data in real-time, except in cases of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, for which there will be a six-month delay.
The new policy “addresses an important area of concern to communications providers and the public,” Mr. Holder said, adding that more work will be done on privacy concerns in the coming weeks.
Mr. Holder is slated to testify Wednesday before a hearing of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary that will focus on the Justice Department’s handling of data collection and privacy concerns with the NSA.
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