Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) is asking the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to lift its long-standing gag order on how often the company is asked to turn over data about its customers to the federal government.
Claiming that it has a First Amendment right to free speech, Google filed a motion Tuesday asking that it be allowed to disclose the number of data requests that come from secret orders approved by the court.
Google is among nine Internet companies identified earlier this month as complicit in a broad Internet surveillance program, called PRISM, that’s run by the National Security Agency. Revelation of the program’s details by a former NSA contractor has sparked a national debate about the privacy of Americans’ communications from government monitoring.
“We have long pushed for transparency so users can better understand the extent to which governments request their data — and Google was the first company to release numbers for National Security Letters,” Niki Fenwick, a spokeswoman for Google in Washington, said in an e-mail. To promote greater transparency, the company is seeking “to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures, separately,” she said.
Google is seeking a declaration from the court that would allow it to release the statistics without violating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, according to the filing, which was provided by Google.
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.
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 and are overseen panel of judges who work in secret.
Google, based in Mountain View-California, asked the FISA court to affirm it has “the right under the First Amendment to publish, and that no applicable law or regulation prohibits Google from publishing,” statistics on the requests, including the total number of users or accounts implicated by the requests, according to the filing.
Sheldon Snook, a spokesman for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, declined to comment on the filing.
Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO) on Tuesday became the latest technology company to give details of government data collection, following disclosures by Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL), Facebook (Nasdaq: FB) and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT), all of whom have revealed thousands of warrants for data from government entities.
Yahoo!, the largest U.S. Web portal, said it got as many as 13,000 requests for information from U.S. law enforcement agencies in the six months ending in May, with the most common types related to fraud, homicides and criminal investigations, Yahoo said in a posting on Tumblr. The Sunnyvale, California- based company said it can’t lawfully break out FISA requests, and it urged the U.S. government to reconsider its stance on the issue.
Google said it’s pushing authorities to let it differentiate between varying types of government requests.
“Lumping national security requests together with criminal requests — as some companies have been permitted to do — would be a backward step for our users,” said Google’s Fenwick.
Intelligence-gathering efforts by the U.S. have helped prevent more than 50 terrorist attacks in more than 20 countries, including one planned on the New York Stock Exchange, government officials said in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee yesterday.
John Chris Inglis, NSA deputy director, said at the hearing that the agency approved inquiries on fewer than 300 phone numbers in 2012.
Surveillance of communications between a known al-Qaeda extremist in Yemen and an individual in the U.S. allowed the FBI to “detect a nascent plot” to bomb the exchange and arrest those involved, Sean Joyce, deputy director of the bureau, said.
Monitoring of foreigners’ Internet activity also helped in the discovery of a plot to bomb the office of a Danish newspaper that published cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, Joyce said.
That plot involved David Headley, a Pakistani-American who was arrested in 2009 for helping to plot the 2008 shooting and bombing attacks in Mumbai that killed 166 people. Headley was convicted in January in a U.S. federal court for his role in the attacks.
Government officials last week said surveillance helped the U.S. to disrupt a plot to bomb the New York City subway system.
The disclosures by Snowden, who also previously worked for the Central Intelligence Agency, have sparked a criminal inquiry by the Justice Department as well as a review by U.S. intelligence agencies of how the leak occurred.
Snowden, 29, fled to Hong Kong last month before revealing himself as the source, and U.S. lawmakers said they want to know more about what led him to act.