SAN FRANCISCO: The biggest tech firms have released a sliver of new information on the government’s national security requests, a small bit of fresh data about the widespread surveillance that has shaken the public’s belief in online privacy.
The information disclosed by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, LinkedIn and Tumblr provided expanded details from 2012 and 2013 showing how often the government has sought information on the firms’ customers in counter-terrorism and other intelligence-related probes. The companies provided limited information in the past about government requests for data, but a new agreement reached last week with the Obama administration allowed a broadened, though still circumscribed, set of figures to be made public.
During the first half of last year, the U.S. government appeared to have a particular hunger for content from Yahoo accounts. The company fielded national security requests for content from 30,000 to 30,999 accounts between January and June of last year. That’s about twice as many as Microsoft, which came in at No. 2.
Google said that it received somewhere between 0 and 999 requests every six months under the law — the number of users or accounts the court sought data on varied, and was never presented specifically Among requests in which user information was demanded, the most data was sought between July and Dec. of 2012 — somewhere between 12,000 and 13,000 users.
In an email, a Yahoo spokeswoman said the company has a “very large global user-base” and that even if the government requests data from a nonexistent email address, it still counts in the total.
“Yahoo will continue to protect the privacy of our users and to ensure our ability to defend it,” wrote Ron Bell, general counsel, and Aaron Altschuler, associate general counsel, law enforcement and security, in a blog post on the company’s Tumblr site. “This includes advocating strenuously for meaningful reform around government surveillance, demanding that government requests be made through lawful means and for lawful purposes, and fighting government requests that we deem unclear, improper, overbroad, or unlawful.”
In similar posts, LinkedIn, Facebook and Microsoft offered some information on FISA requests, and said they would push to be allowed to publish more. All companies noted that the new data was at least a step in the right direction.
The data releases by the five major tech firms offered a mix of dispassionate graphics, reassurances and protests, seeking to alleviate customer concerns about government spying while pressuring national security officials about the companies’ constitutional concerns. The shifting tone in the releases showed the precarious course that major tech firms have had to navigate in recent months, caught between their public commitments to Internet freedom and their enforced roles as data providers to U.S. spy agencies.
A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on the companies’ releases and comments. The spokesman pointed to a late January statement by DNI James Clapper and Attorney General Eric Holder that said the agreement would allow the firms to “disclose more information than ever before to their customers.”
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