Google Inc. (GOOG), Facebook Inc. (FB) and other companies are asking the U.S. government for more leeway in disclosing information about national-security data requests, seeking to reassure customers that authorities don’t have unfettered access to users’ personal details.
David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller, according to a blog post yesterday. The letter asked for permission to report aggregate numbers of national-security requests.
Apple Inc. (AAPL), Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), Google, Facebook and other companies have said they don’t give the government direct access to their systems, after the Washington Post reported last week on government snooping on servers of U.S. Internet companies. By asking to publish the number of security requests, Google is seeking to “show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made,” Drummond wrote.
“Google has nothing to hide,” Drummond’s letter said. Transparency will “serve the public interest without harming national security,” he said.
The administration of President Barack Obama confirmed the existence of classified programs to collect data on U.S. residents’ telephone calls and foreign nationals’ Internet activity on June 6. Obama defended the practice, saying the government’s efforts are “modest encroachments” on privacy legally authorized by Congress and important to thwarting terrorist attacks.
A Justice Department official said authorities received the letter and are reviewing the request. The official asked not to be identified to discuss the start of a review that isn’t public.
The U.S. government program, code-named PRISM, traces its roots to warrantless domestic-surveillance efforts under former President George W. Bush.
The technology companies said they only hand over data to the government when required by law to do so. AOL Inc., Apple and Paltalk.com released statements saying they’ve never heard of PRISM and don’t give the government direct access to servers without a court order.
“We would welcome the opportunity to provide a transparency report that allows us to share with those who use Facebook around the world a complete picture of the government requests we receive, and how we respond,” Ted Ullyot, general counsel of Menlo Park, California-based Facebook, wrote in an e-mailed statement.
Alexander Macgillivray, Twitter Inc.’s general counsel, said in a post yesterday that the microblogging service supports Google’s efforts.
Microsoft, based in Redmond, Washington, said that publishing aggregate information about national-security requests would “help the community understand and debate these important issues.”
“The government should take action to allow companies to provide additional transparency,” Microsoft wrote in an e-mailed statement.
Academics and computer-security specialists say there’s a broad range of ways to harness the systems of the largest technology providers to monitor e-mail, photos and video chats coursing through the Web.
Google, based in Mountain View, California, said it complies with valid legal requests and doesn’t give the U.S. government unfettered access to users’ data. The operator of the world’s most popular Internet search engine said that by publishing data about the requests in its Transparency Report, it will be able to prove to users that their data are mostly protected without harming national security. The report tracks requests for user data from courts and governments worldwide.
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