Earlier this week, Facebook, Yahoo and others came forward some ballpark figures on the amount of data requests it receives from the government. Now one more of the tech companies listed in the leaked PRISM documents has come forward with its own numbers.
AOL, via its blog, published the following information regarding the amount of data requests it receives from the government:
Over the six-month period from December 1, 2012, through May 31, 2013, AOL fielded in the range of 2000 to 3000 demands for user information from U.S. law enforcement at all levels, affecting in the range of 5000 to 6000 accounts. These demands for user information related to both criminal and national security matters and only impacted a tiny fraction of our users.
As we have previously stated, AOL does not provide any government agency with access to our servers. Also, AOL has not received the types of untargeted requests for business records that others reportedly have received.
AOL has only responded to lawful process relating to specific accounts. AOL scrutinizes each government inquiry to ensure strict compliance with legal obligations and rigorous protection of our users' privacy. We guard against overreaching by law enforcement and against overproduction of information. We produce the narrowest amount of data that allows us to comply with our legal obligations.
Like the companies before it, AOL is only allowed to publish a very broad number without getting into specifics. Even worse, federal government requests for data are lumped together with state and local law enforcements' data requests. It's not exactly transparent, but these companies are obviously going to take whatever they can get to restore at least a little bit of the trust that was lost in the wake of the NSA spy program revelations.
In comparison, Google is taking the higher road by directly challenging the secret FISA courts that make it impossible for these companies to publish exact numbers. In a filing from yesterday, the search giant argued that it has a first amendment right to publish the information. It also said that it would not publish these broad data request numbers because "lumping national security requests together with criminal requests ... would be a backward step for our users."
Unfortunately, Google will probably not win the right to publish exact data request numbers. It's the inherent flaw in a system that keeps everything secret - including the court orders and opinions. The American people will not be able to know why such data requests numbers must be kept secret. Instead, our elected representatives will just continue to say it must be kept secret for a secret reason.