Facebook and Microsoft reveal NSA data request numbers in transparency reports, Google and Twitter refuse due to restrictions

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More than two weeks after the NSA’s secret surveillance program, PRISM, was leaked to the world, the companies involved are understandably still taking some heat from its users. Facebook and Microsoft, however, have worked out a deal with the US government to begin including national security-related requests in its transparency reports. Measures that both companies are surely hoping will help alleviate some of the fears that resulted from many of the exaggerated initial reports regarding PRISM.

Facebook revealed that for the second half of 2012, the company received between 9,000 and 10,000 requests from the government for information. These requests affected between 18,000 and 19,000 of Facebook user accounts.

Microsoft says for the same period in 2012, it’s received “between 6,000 and 7,000 criminal and national security warrants, subpoenas and orders affecting between 31,000 and 32,000 consumer accounts.”

The catch, as you’ve probably already noticed, is that the numbers are a little too vague to be of  use to anybody. That’s because the deal that the companies have worked out with the US government only allows them to communicate the numbers in aggregate and in bands of 1,000 — which is why there’s a pattern between both companies’ numbers.

Google, on the other hand, doesn’t agree with publishing the numbers with such restrictions. In fact, they think that it’s a “step back for users.” Here’s what a Google spokesperson told The Verge:

We have always believed that it’s important to differentiate between different types of government requests. We already publish criminal requests separately from National Security Letters. Lumping the two categories together would be a step back for users. Our request to the government is clear: to be able to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures, separately.

Twitter’s Legal Director, Benjamin Lee, followed up shortly after tweeting:

We agree with @Google: It’s important to be able to publish numbers of national security requests—including FISA disclosures—separately.

It makes sense that Google and Twitter have chosen not to go the same route as Microsoft and Facebook — Google in particular already has a detailed breakdown of the type of requests it receives, having to use aggregate numbers in a limited range would only make their transparency reports less useful.

But it’s also hard not to fault Facebook and Microsoft for doing what they did. This entire PRISM fiasco must be one the biggest PR nightmares for them in recent years and at the end of day, it’s much better than no numbers at all. Hopefully more transparency (and specifics) will be allowed in these reports in the future. Due to their sensitive nature, however, I’m not holding my breath.

[via Ars Technica, The Verge, image via Troy Holden]

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5 comments

  1. angie mcdonald

    Two words: who cares? I’m not concerned about my privacy, we have never really had any. I am much more concerned about the intrusion of laws which force us to DO things we don’t necessarily want to do or NOT DO things we want to do. Furthermore, I’m sick of Federal Government spending tax money on stupid crap like pay raises for themselves.

  2. Mike

    [@Ashraf] Ditto.

    IMHO, this is not as much a furor over the companies, but the U.S. Gov’t: there is so much intrusion into all of our lives right now (by both private companies and the gov’t), people just need and want to know exactly what the gov’t is doing, so that WE, the owners of the gov’t, can make a considered decision as to what we want our gov’t to be doing, given the competing interests (security and privacy).

    This simply is not something that we can let run amok, as technology easily can, outpacing us. Nor, with the greatest of respect to our gov’t representatives in Congress, is it something for “Just leave it to us in a few Congressional seats–it’s ok but we can’t tell you anything about it”–WE, the people, want to know, so that we can take charge of our lives and governance and make some key, educated decisions.

  3. Seamus McSeamus

    I already don’t use Facebook or Twitter, and prefer Startpage over Google. Now, I have purchased my last product from Microsoft. There is only one way for people to show their displeasure with these actions, and that is to stop using the products and services of companies who don’t hold their user’s privacy in the highest regard.