The Justice Department announced Monday tech companies, including Google, Microsoft and Facebook, will be allowed to disclose more information on data requests about user accounts made by intelligence agencies, but these new rights fall short of the specific transparency major companies want to reveal to their customers.
President Barack Obama directed the government to allow tech companies the right to reveal more information about data requests from intelligence agencies during a speech about surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency on Jan. 17. Obama will likely refer back to that speech during his State of the Union address Tuesday, repeating a call for Congress to decide on a reforms for digital surveillance, including a way to replace the collection and storage of phone record metadata by the NSA,
The DOJ official said Monday companies will be allowed to reveal more detailed information about the number of national security orders and requests, the number of customer accounts targeted by those orders and the underlying legal authorities, according to a joint statement from Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
"Through these new reporting methods, communications providers will be permitted to disclose more information than ever before to their customers," the statement said. "In the weeks ahead, additional steps must be taken in order to fully implement the reforms directed by the president."
Five tech companies, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft and Yahoo, each filed petitions to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court requesting the ability to tell consumers more about these data requests of data stating a need to maintain the trust of their customers. Those companies issued a joint statement explaining they are dropping those petitions and are pleased with the government's move toward transparency.
"We filed our lawsuits because we believe that the public has a right to know about the volume and types of national security requests we receive," the companies said. "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 data the companies will be allowed to disclose will not paint a complete picture of which agency is asking for certain information, said Kevin Bankston, policy director of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute think tank, in a release.
"Meaningful transparency means giving companies the ability to publish the specific number of requests they receive for specific types of data under specific legal authorities," Bankston said. "Fuzzing the numbers into ranges of a thousand—and even worse, lumping all of the different types of surveillance orders into a single number—serves no national security purpose while making it impossible to effectively evaluate how those powers are being used."
Similar transparency reports of data requests from law enforcement investigations have been disclosed for years without disturbing criminal investigations, Bankston said..
More transparency is needed to help Americans "decide for themselves whether the NSA's spying has gone too far," said Alex Abdo, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, in a statement.
"Congress should require the government to publish basic information about the full extent of its surveillance, including the significant amount of spying that happens without the tech companies' involvement," Abdo said.
In addition to asking for information through the federal surveillance court the NSA monitored network connections between the data centers of Google and Yahoo without permission from those companies, according to documents leaked to the press by former agency contractor Edward Snowden.