Kashmir Hill is a Forbes writer
The fallout from the NSA material leaked by Edward Snowden just keeps on coming. Tech companies highlighted in a PowerPoint about PRISM have put pressure on the government to let them talk about the number of secret national security requests they get to try to prove that they aren’t handing over massive amounts of intel on their users.
The government relented on Friday, letting a handful of companies publish general, aggregated numbers about such requests, as long as the companies buried the national security numbers in with all the other requests they get from law enforcement and government agencies. Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo jumped on that opportunity, but Google — which has a long history of publishing transparency reports about government data requests — balked. Google wanted to reveal the FISA numbers on their own. So, on Tuesday, as first reported by the Washington Post, it filed a legal challenge to the government gag order around national security requests, telling the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court that the gag orders are a violation of the company’s First Amendment right to free speech.
“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,” says a Google spokesperson in a statement. “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.”
The complaint says that the Guardian and Washington Post stories that first revealed details about PRISM, an NSA program for gathering data from tech companies, contained inaccuracies that Google is having a hard time correcting due to the government’s gag. Google is not content to publish aggregate data as other companies have done and is asking the court for permission to publish “1. the total number of FISA requests it receives, if any; and 2. the total number of users or accounts encompassed within such requests.” The complaint, written by telecom lawyer Al Gidari of Perkins Coie, argues that there’s no harm to national security in revealing these numbers.