The Justice Department reached the deal with technology companies which allows them to tell more about the government surveillance requests on data to their clients. These companies now can explain for the first time to their customers who use their services about the ranges of customer information they were requested to hand over.
The agreement provided to companies some respite from pressures by customers, especially from overseas, who would be reluctant to use American technology companies because of secret government surveillance requests. A group of five affected companies, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Facebook, have filed a lawsuit against the government.
The friction between Justice Department and tech companies started when Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, released the documents revealing the government had far more intrusive access to customers’ data than known before through the program called PRISM. The government agencies usually ask companies holding data to provide requested information through national security letters, administrative subpoena or through the legal authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The thorniest issue to companies and their customers is that companies are allowed to tell almost nothing, not even a reason for collection, to customers about government requests. Under the current standard of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), companies can only disclose the number of national security letter subpoenas only in increments of 1,000. Therefore, customers using email service providers, voice-chat services, or social-network companies would not know if the government authorities took their information only one time or 999 times. This in turn, companies argue, seriously damages the integrity and reputation of their companies in both international and domestic markets. But the Obama administration has been reluctant to permit these companies to reveal more, which may help suspected terrorists escape government surveillance.
Today’s compromise between the Justice Department and companies allows companies to tell more to customers as to whether there is a FISA court order on client’s data. However, they must choose to reveal either the number or the nature of government requests, not both. If a company chooses to reveal the number of requests, it can reveal how many requests there have been in increments of 1,000 in each of FISA order and national security letters or in increments of 250 as a number of FISA court orders and national security letters combined. Companies are also permitted to reveal the number of requests from law enforcements and national security letters received in real time, although the report on FISA court orders would be allowed only after six-month delay.
The Obama Administration has been hammered in public for the surveillance programs. It has been trying to mitigate further damages through various channels ever since the Snowden leak. Last week, President Obama announced plans for NSA reform. In a joint statement released today, Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stated that the compromise is the result of President Obama’s speech last week. Holder further stated that the public interest for revealing the information on the government data collection prevails over the national security interests for classifying it.
Companies immediately responded. Five companies, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, and LinkedIn, suing the government data collection programs withdrew their case against the FISA court. These technology companies in a joint statement said that by allowing them to tell more to clients about the government data collection requests, Obama and Justice Department are taking a right step.
By Jonathan Jung