Leading technology companies showed the federal government, Monday, that they are still not satisfied with the surveillance reforms and transparency efforts of the Obama administration. Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and Yahoo issued separate statements and reports in connection with the intelligence-gathering program of the United States.
Since the revelations of National Security Agency ex-contractor Edward Snowden about the spying program and data siphoning of the government, technology companies have voiced concerns of how non-disclosure of relevant data may affect their business. On January 27, the U.S. government through the Department of Justice, allowed technology and and telecommunication companies to release on a limited basis, information requests from government agencies.
Firms can broadly disclose the number of national security letters they received and the number of affected customers. While the companies can disclose on real-time information about court orders and requests from agencies such as the FBI, the same is not true for requests coming from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. FISA requests can only be disclosed six months upon receipt.
While the statements were issued separately, technology giants were univocal in calling for changes to allow them to be more transparent to their customers and to the public.
Google reported that it received between 0 and 999 FISA content requests affecting between 9,000 and 9,999 accounts in January through June of 2013. Figures for the second half of last year cannot be released yet due to the six-month delay requirement.
"Publishing these numbers is a step in the right direction, and speaks to the principles for reform that we announced with other companies last December. But we still believe more transparency is needed so everyone can better understand how surveillance laws work and decide whether or not they serve the public interest. Specifically, we want to disclose the precise numbers and types of requests we receive, as well as the number of users they affect in a timely way. That's why we need Congress to go another step further and pass legislation that will enable us to say more," wrote legal director for law enforcement and information security at Google Richard Salgado.
Meanwhile, Facebook said it also received between 0 and 999 FISA content requests affecting between 5,000 and 5,999 accounts during the first half of 2013.
"We will continue to advocate for reform of government surveillance practices around the world, and for greater transparency about the degree to which governments seek access to data in connection with their efforts to keep people safe," wrote Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch.
Microsoft disclosed that for the first half of 2013, it received about 1,000 FISA content requests that affected between 15,000 and 15,999 accounts. However, it clarified that this does not necessarily mean that more than 15,000 individuals were directly affected since one may have several accounts.
"...despite the President's reform efforts and our ability to publish more information, there has not yet been any public commitment by either the U.S. or other governments to renounce the attempted hacking of Internet companies. We believe the Constitution requires that our government seek information from American companies within the rule of law," said Microsoft's general counsel Brad Smith in a statement.
Yahoo revealed that it received between 0 and 999 FISA content requests that affected roughly 30,000 to 31,000 user accounts.
"Yahoo will continue to protect the privacy of our users and to ensure our ability to defend it. This includes advocating strenuously for meaningful reform around government surveillance, demanding that government requests be made through lawful means and for lawful purposes, and fighting government requests that we deem unclear, improper, overbroad, [sic] or unlawful," wrote Ron Bell and Aaron Altschuler, Yahoo's general counsel and associate general counsel, respectively.
While all these reports and statements somehow shed a little light on the surveillance activities of the government, their primary purpose is to protect brands and businesses. Siphoning of information continues and neither the public nor the technology companies will fully know about it unless the government itself spills the beans.