Internet giants call for greater transparency on US security requests

Google, Microsoft and Facebook seek permission to make public the scope of data handovers

Google’s headquarters at Barrow Street in Dublin. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

Google’s headquarters at Barrow Street in Dublin. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times


Three of the largest Internet companies called on the US government to provide greater transparency on national security requests today, as they sought to distance themselves from reports that portrayed the companies as willing partners in supplying mass data to security agencies.

In similarly worded statements released within hours today, Google, Microsoft and Facebook all asked the US government for permission to make public the number and scope of data requests each receives from security agencies.

Each of the companies, and several others, have come under scrutiny following disclosures in the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers of their role in a National Security Agency data collection programme named Prism.

Google was the first to go public, releasing an open letter asking the US Department of Justice for permission to publish the total number of government requests for national security information, arguing the figures would show the company does not give the government “unfettered access” to its users’ data.

“Assertions in the press that our compliance with these requests gives the US government unfettered access to our users’ data are simply untrue,” Google chief legal officer David Drummond wrote in a letter to attorney general Eric Holder and FBI director Robert Mueller that was published on Google’s public policy blog.

Google’s current transparency reports - which show the number of data requests it receives from authorities - do not include requests under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Microsoft issued a similar request soon after.

“Permitting greater transparency on the aggregate volume and scope of national security requests, including FISA orders, would help the community understand and debate these important issues,” Microsoft said in an emailed statement.

Leading social network Facebook followed within minutes.

“We would welcome the opportunity to provide a transparency report that allows us to share with those who use Facebook around the world a complete picture of the government requests we receive, and how we respond,” said Ted Ullyot, Facebook’s general counsel, in an emailed statement.

“We urge the United States government to help make that possible by allowing companies to include information about the size and scope of national security requests we receive, and look forward to publishing a report that includes that information.”

Although president Barack Obama and senior US intelligence officials have confirmed the existence of Prism, Google and other tech firms have vigorously denied that they give government agencies direct access to their servers or that it complies with overly broad requests for user data.