Microsoft and Google Legally Pursue Transparency On FISA Requests

Microsoft and Google Legally Pursue Transparency On FISA Requests

Microsoft and Google have set their sights on the United States government in a bid to publish statistics on the national security requests on their user bases. Earlier this week Facebook published data on requests for the first half of 2013.

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Dating back to June, both companies filed for permission through a federal court to release the information. The result has been stalling from the U.S government as they requested several extensions in a two month period.

On a busy Thursday which included next executive orders to gun control and the swearing in of a new ATF Director, the White House announced that it would start announcing the total number of security requests. This is in contrast to companies releasing information on criminal pursuit from local, state, and federal law enforcement. In this case, companies are allowed to post ranges, but not exact numbers when it comes to requests from the United States.

The information the White House will put out will cover a 12-month period and would be an annual thing. With press shining a negative light on companies’ cooperation with something that comes off as intrusive to privacy and the concerns from their own user base, it’s no wonder Google and Microsoft aren’t satisfied with this.

Microsoft and Google are looking for specific information and are seeking to do breakdowns on these requests as opposed to a broad “X-hundred-thousand in 2013.”

Microsoft General Counsel, Brad Smith wrote “We believe it is vital to publish information that clearly shows the number of national security demands for user content, such as the text of an email. These figures should be published in a form that is distinct from the number of demands that capture only metadata such as the subscriber information associated with a particular email address.”

Smith went on to add, “We believe it’s possible to publish these figures in a manner that avoids putting security at risk. And unless this type of information is made public, any discussion of government practices and service provider obligations will remain incomplete.”

Microsoft's Brad SmithBrad Smith, General Counsel of Microsoft

He would also  touch on Microsoft and Google standing together on this issue. Given that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is something that proving to be a thorn in their side—and other tech companies’ side—it’s not a big surprise that they would be on the same side of the ring on this. The surprise factor here comes from the rivalry as far which online service provides the best for its users between the two.

Google’s Chief Legal Officer, David Drummond sent a letter to the FBI about keeping the company clear of suspicion in relation to the touchy subject of balancing privacy and security.

“Government nondisclosure obligations regarding the number of FISA national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests, fuel that speculation. We therefore ask you to help make it possible for Google to publish in our Transparency Report aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures—in terms of both the number we receive and their scope. Google’s numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made.

Google has nothing to hide.”

Google’s plan is to go with ranged request to give a scope of the requests without being overly specific. This approach is used for National Security Letters and they wish to apply them to FISA requests. While it’s not the same as Microsoft’s plan, it seems to be a likely sweet spot for getting the information out should the legal approach prove fruitless from Microsoft’s end.

In the same blog, Brad Smith touched on the negotiations that fell through on both sides and what Microsoft ultimately hopes to achieve not just for the company, but other technology companies that deal with consumers’ information.

“With the failure of our recent negotiations, we will move forward with litigation in the hope that the courts will uphold our right to speak more freely.  And with a growing discussion on Capitol Hill, we hope Congress will continue to press for the right of technology companies to disclose relevant information in an appropriate way.”


Starting with Kabir News in 2013, James has focused on tech, gaming, and entertainment. When not writing, he enjoys catching up on sci-fi and horror shows and comics. He can be followed on Twitter @MetalSwift.

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