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June 17, 2013

Facebook, Microsoft Get OK to Reveal More Info on NSL Requests

The government has given Microsoft and Facebook the green light to divulge the number of national security-related requests they receive — but the information must be grouped together with other data requests, the companies announced late Friday.

Both companies received thousands of requests for data from U.S. government agencies — local, state, and federal — in the latter half of 2012.

Microsoft received 6,000 to 7,000 national security warrants, subpoenas and orders involving between 31,000 and 32,000 accounts.

Microsoft vice-president and deputy general counsel John Frank said in a blog post the firm was given permission to publish the data on national security orders for the six-month period of July 1 to Dec. 31 of last year, but only if the totals were released in groups of 1,000 with all services reported together.

He also said that while the numbers released include any Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) orders received, the company is not allowed to confirm if it has, indeed, received any such orders.

“We continue to believe that what we are permitted to publish continues to fall short of what is needed to help the community understand and debate these issues,” Frank said.

“We appreciate the effort by the U.S. government today to allow us to report more information. We understand they have to weigh carefully the impacts on national security of allowing more disclosures. With more time, we hope they will take further steps.”

Facebook, meanwhile, received 9,000 to 10,000 requests involving between 18,000 and 19,000 accounts.

“These requests run the gamut – from things like a local sheriff trying to find a missing child, to a federal marshal tracking a fugitive, to a police department investigating an assault, to a national security official investigating a terrorist threat,” Facebook general counsel Ted Ullyot said in a blog post.

“With more than 1.1 billion monthly active users worldwide, this means that a tiny fraction of one percent of our user accounts were the subject of any kind of U.S. state, local, or federal U.S. government request (including criminal and national security-related requests) in the past six months. We hope this helps put into perspective the numbers involved, and lays to rest some of the hyperbolic and false assertions in some recent press accounts about the frequency and scope of the data requests that we receive.”

The newly released numbers from Microsoft and Facebook come after the firms petitioned U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for permission to go public with federal court orders requiring them to provide data on their users to all law enforcement agencies.

The requests for transparency became a necessary measure for both companies after reports earlier this month that the National Security Agency and the FBI are monitoring all of the biggest U.S. Internet companies — including Microsoft and Facebook — with their full co-operation as part of its hush-hush surveillance program PRISM.

The Washington Post and The Guardian, which received top-secret information about PRISM courtesy of whistleblower Edward Snowden, published stories indicating Microsoft and Facebook, and other companies such as Google, 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 since said they comply with requests for information only when forced by law.

Google also petitioned Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller, Chief Legal Officer David Drummond for increased transparency in an open letter.