Google Asks the U.S. Government to Let Them Be More Transparent About National Security-Fueled Data Requests

Josh WolfordTechnology

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Google has sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Mueller - one that they've just made public on their public policy blog. The letter asks the U.S. government to let Google publish the aggregate numbers of national security requests (including FISA disclosures) in the company's Transparency Report - that's the purpose of the letter. The purpose of making it public, on the other hand, is to further distance themselves from the controversy surrounding PRISM and the large-scale NSA surveillance initiative that was first unearthed earlier this week.

Google, along with other high-profile tech companies like Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft, were associated with the recently-leaked PRISM documents, which appears to show some worrisome handholding between the companies and the U.S. government. Data-mining, surveillance - it's all there. And the leaks indicate that Google et. all provided a backdoor into their data for the National Security Agency to walk right through.

Google was quick to deny any involvement.

"First, we have not joined any program that would give the U.S. government - or any other government - direct access to our servers. Indeed, the U.S. government does not have direct access or a 'back door' to the information stored in our data centers. We had not heard of a program called PRISM until yesterday," said Google CEO Larry Page in a statement.

Nice statement, and it mirrors one made by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Basically, "we are learning about this at the same time you are." Page's blog post addressing the so-called PRISM program was notably titled "What the...?" But to its veracity? Well, only time will tell on that front.

Anyway, Google is now going on the offensive in the fight to rid their name from the PRISM connection.

"Assertions in the press that our compliance with these requests gives the U.S. government unfettered access to our users’ data are simply untrue. However, government nondisclosure obligations regarding the number of FISA national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests, fuel that speculation," says Google's Chief Legal Officer David Drummond in the new letter.

To this end, Google wants to be able to give just a little bit more information in their Transparency Report - just a number pertaining to how FISA-backed requests they receive. Not the content or any specifics, just the aggregate totals.

Here's the letter to Holder and Mueller, in its entirety:

Dear Attorney General Holder and Director Mueller

Google has worked tremendously hard over the past fifteen years to earn our users’ trust. For example, we offer encryption across our services; we have hired some of the best security engineers in the world; and we have consistently pushed back on overly broad government requests for our users’ data.

We have always made clear that we comply with valid legal requests. And last week, the Director of National Intelligence acknowledged that service providers have received Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests.

Assertions in the press that our compliance with these requests gives the U.S. government unfettered access to our users’ data are simply untrue. However, government nondisclosure obligations regarding the number of FISA national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests, fuel that speculation.

We therefore ask you to help make it possible for Google to publish in our Transparency Report aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures—in terms of both the number we receive and their scope. Google’s numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made. Google has nothing to hide.

Google appreciates that you authorized the recent disclosure of general numbers for national security letters. There have been no adverse consequences arising from their publication, and in fact more companies are receiving your approval to do so as a result of Google’s initiative. Transparency here will likewise serve the public interest without harming national security.

We will be making this letter public and await your response.

David Drummond
Chief Legal Officer

This is Google going on the offensive. And it's a big deal. It would force (at least in theory) the U.S. government to give up a bit of the secrecy associated with its data requests. Up until now, of course, that secrecy has been nearly absolute.

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Josh Wolford
Josh Wolford is a writer for WebProNews. He likes beer, Japanese food, and movies that make him feel weird afterward. Mostly beer. Follow him on Twitter: @joshgwolf Instagram: @joshgwolf Google+: Joshua Wolford StumbleUpon: joshgwolf