Government Says Tech Companies Can’t Reveal Data Request Numbers Because Terrorism

    October 3, 2013

Ever since PRISM’s reveal in early June, tech companies named as participants in the program have been trying to distance themselves from it. Part of that effort involved asking the federal government to let them publish the number of federal data requests they receive on an annual basis. Those requests were rejected, and now the companies in question are suing the federal government for the right to release those numbers.

In a motion filed on Monday, the Department of Justice responded to the lawsuits by saying that anymore transparency that what is currently being offered by Washington would threaten national security. The government notes that its current plan to publish aggregate numbers that lump both federal and local government data requests into one number is sufficient enough. It asserts that anything else would play right into the terrorists’ hands:

Dissatisfied with the Government’s efforts to strike the appropriate balance between the public interest in transparency and the protection of national security, the petitioners seek declaratory relief that would effectively give every communications provider in the United States the right to reveal the nature and scope of any FISA surveillance of their communications platforms. Such information would be invaluable to our adversaries, who could thereby derive a clear picture of where the Government’s surveillance efforts are directed and how its surveillance activities change over time, including where the Government initiates or expands surveillance efforts involving providers or services that adversaries previously considered “safe.”

After two pages of redactions, the Justice Department continues its argument that revealing data request numbers benefits nobody but terrorists:

Second, for similar reasons, the companies’ proposed unilateral disclosures would allow our adversaries to infer when the Government has acquired a collection capability on new services.

Third, the proposed disclosures would also enable our adversaries to gain significant information about which platforms and services are not subject to surveillance, or are subject to only limited surveillance.

Disclosing precise numbers associated with each provision or title of FISA, as the companies propose, would provide our adversaries with even more specific information, which they could use to track the Government’s sources and methods of FISA-authorized intelligence collection.

In short, the government is arguing that allowing any kind of meaningful transparency into the current debate on surveillance would lead to an uptick in terrorist activities. It’s like they think terrorists are stupid enough to be communicating via U.S.-based services like Facebook or Gmail. The fact of the matter is that the real threats to national security aren’t using these services, and yet the government continues to argue that surveilling American activities on Facebook is the key to stopping terrorism.

Obviously, tech companies are expressing disappointment with the Justice Department’s motion. A Yahoo spokesperson said it best in a statement to The Hill:

“[The] decision to block our ability to share with our users more granular information related to national security requests ultimately breeds mistrust and suspicion — both of the United States and of companies that must comply with government legal directives.”

Microsoft and Google joined in with statements reiterating once again that more transparency is needed in the debate over striking the right balance between privacy and national security. Google added that the government’s decision to redact sections of its motion to the FISA court also illustrates a need “for greater transparency in the FISC process.”

The government’s motion to dismiss the lawsuits will probably win out in the end, but for now, we can only hope that the FISA court admits that at least a little more transparency is needed.

[Image: Wikimedia Commons]