Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Google Wants Permission to Disclose How Many National Security Requests It Gets

nsa_sealGoogle’s chief legal officer has asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller for permission to disclose the number of requests for information it has received from federal agencies under the auspices of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

In a corporate blog post that went up minutes ago, Google’s David Drummond published the text of a letter to Holder seeking clearance to add data on FISA requests that Google receives to its Transparency Report.

Media reports suggesting that Google is among companies that give U.S. intelligence agencies access to their servers in order to gather data on American citizens are “simply untrue,” Drummond said.

Google clearly knows more about this situation that has been unfolding about the National Security Agency, Prism and government surveillance programs. But under the rules of FISA, simply disclosing the fact that you’ve been served with a FISA request is by itself illegal. And, like so much else that’s considered too secret to discuss in this matter, it’s difficult to have an informed discussion about any of it if disclosure of even the most basic facts about it is illegal.

Being allowed to disclose aggregate numbers would, Drummond writes, “clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made.”

Perhaps as a way of illustrating the level of bureaucratic ridiculousness, the letter also serves as Google’s first public acknowledgement that it ever received FISA requests in the first place. Drummond refers back to the fact that James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, disclosed the fact that some companies are required to turn over requested information under the terms of FISA. But they’re subject to stiff gag rules about the requests.

Here’s the letter:

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

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik