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June 19, 2013

Google Petitions Top-Secret Court, Asks for Increased Transparency

Technology Company Says It Must Provide Public 'More Than Generalities'

Google is continuing its battle for transparency, asking the U.S.’s top-secret court to lift the gag order on data requests made by the National Security Agency, FBI and other federal agencies.

In a court document, filed late Tuesday, Google asks the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) for permission to go public with the total numbers of requests the company receives that are okayed by the court as well as the number of user accounts affected by those requests.

“Google’s reputation and business has been harmed by the false or misleading reports in the media and Google’s users are concerned by the allegations,” the filing reads. “Google must respond to such claims with more than generalities.”

The filing comes after the technology titan rejected the government deal that gave technology companies permission to divulge the total number of warrants issued for user data, as long as the number of requests approved by FISC were not detailed.

“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,” Google said in a post on Google+.

“However, greater transparency is needed, so today we have petitioned the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to allow us to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures, separately. Lumping national security requests together with criminal requests—as some companies have been permitted to do—would be a backward step for our users.”

Google’s push for transparency is in response to reports two weeks ago that the National Security Agency and the FBI are monitoring all of the biggest U.S. Internet companies, some for as long as six years, with their full co-operation as part of its PRISM program.

The Washington Post and The Guardian, which received top-secret information about PRISM courtesy of whistleblower Edward Snowden, published stories indicating Google and other companies such as Microsoft and Facebook willingly joined the government surveillance plan.

According to The Post’s report the providers handed over such things as e-mails, video and voice chats, videos, photos, stored data, VoIP, file transfers, video conferencing, notifications of activity, online social networking details and special requests.

It turns out, however, that The Post and The Guardian misinterpreted the documentation. None of the companies named in the original reports — Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple — have granted the NSA access to their servers. Many of the companies have said they release information only after receiving a court order or a National Security Letter (NSL).

Google habitually releases a bi-annual Transparency Report outlining the requests it receives from governments and law enforcement agencies around the world.

In its most recent Transparency Report in March, Google included data about the NSLs it had received for the first time although, to comply with the law, the technology giant was forced to be pretty vague with its numbers.

NSLs are most commonly issued by the FBI. While the FBI does not require court approval to issue an NSL, they can only be used in matters related to national security, not for ordinary criminal, civil, or administrative matters.

While in most cases it is standard practice for Google to notify users about legal demands, the FBI can prohibit the company from disclosing it has received an NSL, if it certifies the disclosure may result in “a danger to the national security of the United States, interference with a criminal, counterterrorism, or counterintelligence investigation, interference with diplomatic relations, or danger to the life or physical safety of any person.”

If Google accomplishes its goal, the technology firm would be able to release more detailed information in its reports.