The government and leading Internet companies on Monday announced a compromise that will allow tech firms to reveal more information about how often they are ordered to turn over customer information as part of national security investigations.
The Justice Department reached agreements with Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc., Facebook Inc. and LinkedIn Corp. that would resolve those companies' legal challenges before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The companies had asked judges to allow them to disclose data on national security orders they have received under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
As part of the agreement, companies had to promise that if they develop new technology or new forms of communication, they cannot reveal that the government can tap into that new technology for two years. They also have to delay releasing the number of national security orders by six months.
The delivery of customer information to the government from Internet companies has come under much scrutiny in the United States following leaks about National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden.
Some of the companies were among U.S. Internet businesses identified as giving the NSA access to customer data under the program known as PRISM. But the companies had said they wanted to make the disclosures in order to correct inaccuracies in news reports and to calm public speculation about the scope of the companies' cooperation with the government.
The government had opposed those requests, but late last week reached a deal with the companies that would give customers a better idea of how much information is being collected.
"Permitting disclosure of this aggregate data addresses an important area of concern to communications providers and the public," Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a joint statement.
The five companies welcomed the deal, but said more needs to be done. "We filed our lawsuits because we believe that the public has a right to know about the volume and types of national security requests we receive," the companies said in a joint statement. "While this is a very positive step, we'll continue to encourage Congress to take additional steps to address all of the reforms we believe are needed."
Under the compromise announced Monday, Internet companies will be able to release more information, but still only in very general terms when it comes to national security investigations. They can report the number of criminal-related orders from the government. They also will be able to release, rounded to the nearest thousand, the number of secret national security-related orders from government investigators; the number of national security-related orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and the number of customers those orders affected, and whether those orders were for just email addresses or covered additional information.
The companies can also choose a simplified reporting process that allows them to disclose the number of criminal-related orders, and then national security or intelligence orders in increments of 250 and the total number of customers targeted, also in groups of 250.
"These new reporting methods enable communications providers to make public more information than ever before about the orders that they have received to provide data to the government," Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said in a letter to the five Internet companies.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a brief supporting the tech firms in their bid to disclose more information, said Monday that the deal "partially" lifted an information gag on the companies. But the group praised the agreement as "a victory for transparency."
Alex Abdo, a lawyer with the ACLU's National Security Project, said: "It is commendable that the companies pressed the government for more openness, but even more is needed. Congress should require the government to publish basic information about the full extent of its surveillance."
The Associated Press