Inside the Numbers: Latest Round of Transparency Reports are Most Revealing Yet

February 17, 2014

Technology companies including Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo have recently given the first look at secret data requests made by the government in regards to national security issues.  These new details were published this past week and revealed both the scope and volume of requests that were made. The data requests by the government were made under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (“FISA”).  FISA is an act passed in 1978 by Congress which establishes the procedures for gaining authorization for foreign intelligence surveillance; the government requests for data from technology companies come from the FISA court pending approval of the request.  Many web companies, including Microsoft and Google, had sued the government for the ability to disclose more information regarding the court orders for user information which they receive.  As a result of this lawsuit, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) relaxed their current rules and introduced new guidelines which would allow general information about FISA requests to be published.  This move was also recently backed by President Obama in a speech regarding intelligence reform and privacy concerns.

‘[T]he public interest in disclosing this information now outweighs the national security concerns that required its classification.’

The publication of these disclosures comes at a time when, as Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stated, “the public interest in disclosing this information now outweighs the national security concerns that required its classification.” Despite the fact that the companies may not release precise numbers, but rather ranges regarding the amount of FISA requests received from the government and the amount of affected accounts, these new disclosures are still the most comprehensive transparency reports to this date.  Google’s lawyer, Richard Salgado, noted this in his statement that “for the first time, [their] report on government requests for user information encompasses all of the requests [they] receive.”  The technology companies had pushed for the ability to release more comprehensive transparency reports in order to rid themselves of suspicions regarding their involvement in surveillance programs – especially following the controversial public revelations made by Edward Snowden.  In addition to being prohibited from releasing precise numbers, the companies must also report the number of requests in increments of thousands and after a six-month delay from the reporting period.
The numbers in the transparency reports reveal that Google received under 1,000 FISA requests during the period of July to December 2012, and that these requests involved between 12,000-13,000 accounts.  For its latest reporting period which spans from January to June of last year, Google again received under 1,000 FISA requests which this time affected between 9,000-10,000 accounts.  Microsoft received FISA court orders requesting content relating to between 15,000 and 16,000 accounts from January to June of last year.  Yahoo reported receiving information requests for between 30,000 and 31,000 accounts during its most recent period.  Facebook’s requests for information affected between 5,000 and 6,000 accounts.  Holding the least number of account information requests was Linkedin, which received requests for under 250 of its accounts.  These transparency reports were published via the blogs of each company.
While these newest transparency reports give increased insight into the scope and volume of secret FISA requests which the government submits, many of these technology companies’ representatives feel that transparency needs to be extended (as a Constitutional right)to allow for precise numbers in order to reveal “the degree to which the governments seek access to data….”