Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. are holding discussions with the U.S. government to disclose more information about national-security requests, people with knowledge of the matter said.
The people asked not to be identified because the talks aren’t public. The negotiations follow Google’s open letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller earlier this week, asking for more leeway to report aggregate numbers of data requests.
Facebook General Counsel Ted Ullyot wrote in a blog post late today that the social-networking service received permission to disclose some information about U.S. national security-related orders, though it may release numbers only in aggregate and as a range. He wrote that Facebook received between 9,000 and 10,000 requests for user data, affecting 18,000 to 19,000 user accounts, in the second half of 2012.
Microsoft Corp. and Facebook joined Google in asking for disclosure permission, seeking to reassure customers that authorities don’t have unfettered access to users’ personal details. While the companies have said they don’t give the government direct access to their systems, thousands of technology, finance and manufacturing businesses are swapping intelligence with U.S. national security agencies, four other people familiar with the process said.
Chris Gaither, a spokesman for Google, and Andrew Ames, a spokesman for the Justice Department, declined to comment.
AllThingsD reported the Web companies’ negotiations with the government earlier today.
The role of private companies has come under scrutiny since Edward Snowden, a computer technician who did work for the National Security Agency, disclosed this month that the agency is collecting millions of U.S. residents’ telephone records and the computer communications of foreigners from Google and other Internet companies under court order.
“Google’s numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made,” David Drummond, chief legal officer at Google, wrote on a blog post. “Google has nothing to hide.”
The U.S. government program, code-named PRISM, traces its roots to warrantless domestic-surveillance efforts under former President George W. Bush. According to slides provided by Snowden, PRISM gathers e-mails, videos and other private data of foreign surveillance targets through arrangements that vary by company, overseen by a secret panel of judges.
The technology companies said they hand over data to the government only when compelled by law to do so. AOL Inc., Apple Inc. and Paltalk.com released statements saying they’ve never heard of PRISM and don’t give authorities access without a court order.
Google is seeking to disclose requests within the rules of national security laws, including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The three-decade-old law lets intelligence agencies monitor the communications of non-U.S. citizens reasonably believed to be located outside the U.S. and involved in terrorist activities or other crimes.
Along with the NSA, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and branches of the U.S. military have agreements with companies to gather data that might seem innocuous yet could be highly useful in the hands of U.S. intelligence or cyberwarfare units, according to the people, who have either worked for the government or are in companies that have these accords.