In a letter posted to Google's company blog Tuesday afternoon and addressed to the attorney general and the FBI director hours earlier, the head lawyer for the world's leading information crawler has asked the U.S. government for permission to publish the number of top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requests it receives from the nation's spy agencies and beyond each year. After nearly a week of startling disclosures — including that Google was one of at least nine massive tech companies participating, willfully or not, in the National Security Agency's so-called PRISM program to data-mine Americans' Internet activity — it represented a shot across the bow from Silicon Valley, or at least a PR attempt to soften the blow. Indeed, Facebook and then Microsoft quickly followed up with transparency requests of their own.
The NSA is finding and storing information about U.S. and foreign nationals, that much we know. But the extent of their demands, and the exact process involved with mining data from Internet companies, remains a mystery. A former government official told CNET that the process goes something like this:
...the government delivers an order to obtain account details about someone who's specifically identified as a non-U.S. individual, with a specific finding that they're involved in an activity related to international terrorism. Both the contents of communications and metadata, such as information about who's talking to whom, can be requested.
In 2008, Congress approved amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allowing, among other things, the government to conduct warrantless wiretaps of electronic communications, contingent upon judicial approval. Several subsequent votes have extended those powers, and President Obama and his administration defended the oversight by secret courts, even as some members of the Senate moved on Tuesday for disclosure there, too.
Enter Google, which after all-too-similar statements to Facebook and the rest of the nine companies giving up info in the leaked PRISM initiative is now asking the heads of the judiciary and another top intelligence agency if they can publicly disclose to the world how many FISA requests they receive each year. From the letter, signed by Google's David Drummond:
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.
To be sure, it's been a whirlwind five days for the companies inside PRISM, and their reflection outside of it. Google is clearly worried they're being misrepresented in the media. Leaker Edward Snowden told the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald the NSA has unfettered access to the servers of companies forced to comply with the PRISM program — Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple. But Google has steadfastly denied cooperating with the NSA outside of what they're absolutely forced to under the law.
The FISA requests don't already show up in Google's regular transparency reports because they are top secret, according to the law. So now Google wants to tell the world exactly how much they cooperate with the U.S. government. Of the publicly available government data requests to Google, the numbers have been increasing:
To be sure, if Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller were to grant the request — again, it's a long shot, considering the government has been defending its spy programs even more aggressively than tech companies have been denying and explaining their participation — still only a fraction of the requests would be disclosed. Google's lawyer said the company was asking to come clean about an aggregate number, not the information inside the requests themselves. "Google's numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made," his letter reads. "Google has nothing to hide."
Update, 4:10 p.m.: In a call with shareholders Tuesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave his most emphatic denial of cooperating with the NSA program yet:
"We don't work directly with the NSA or any other program in order to proactively give any user information to anyone," Zuckerberg said at a shareholder's meeting. "No one has ever approached us to do anything like that, like what was reported...No agency has any direct access to our servers."
"None of these agencies have any kind of direct access where they can plug into our servers and get information. We push back to protect the security and privacy of all of our users' information."
Update 4:43 p.m.: And, just like that, Facebook's general counsel piggybacked on Google's transparency letter with this statement given to the National Journal:
"We would welcome the opportunity to provide a transparency report that allows us to share with those who use Facebook around the world a complete picture of the government requests we receive, and how we respond," said Ted Ullyot in a statement. "We urge the United States government to help make that possible by allowing companies to include information about the size and scope of national security requests we receive, and look forward to publishing a report that includes that information."
Update, 4:52 p.m.: In a statement given to Reuters, Microsoft joined the fun:
"Permitting greater transparency on the aggregate volume and scope of national security requests, including FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) orders, would help the community understand and debate these important issues," Microsoft said in an emailed statement.
"Our recent report went as far as we legally could and the government should take action to allow companies to provide additional transparency".
It's transparency all the way down!