Mike Isaac

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Facebook Reaches Agreement With Feds to Allow Data Request Disclosures

After intense discussions and at the urging of Facebook, Google and other Silicon Valley giants, the U.S. Government will allow Facebook and other tech companies to disclose some data on information requests made under national security laws, including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, to the public, according to a release from Facebook on Friday evening.

As a result, tech companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo and others will also be able to disclose numbers of government requests, sources said.

Update 8:22 pm PT: Just a few hours later, Microsoft has also released aggregate numbers of data requests for the six months ending December 31, 2012.

The development comes on the heels of a massive week of privacy and security scandals surrounding former NSA employee Edward Snowden, who has released documents suggesting that the Silicon Valley giants had given the Federal Government access to their large treasure troves of data via a formerly classified NSA program called PRISM.

The levels of access and cooperation between tech giants and the government have been in dispute since the news first broke last week. But companies like Facebook and Google were somewhat hamstrung to defend themselves by existing legislation, which bars companies from even discussing whether or not they have been served with FISA requests in the first place.

“Requests from law enforcement entities investigating national security-related cases are by their nature classified and highly sensitive, and the law traditionally has placed significant constraints on the ability of companies like Facebook to even confirm or acknowledge receipt of these requests — let alone provide details of our responses,” Facebook general counsel Ted Ullyot said in a statement released on Facebook’s site.

As my colleague Kara Swisher reported earlier in the day, Facebook has been in serious talks with the Feds to allow such disclosures, so as to better defend themselves against accusations leveled earlier this week. While Facebook and Google have been in separate discussions with government officials all week, a source familiar with the matter said, Facebook released the information less than one minute after receiving final government approval to do so.

“We’re pleased that as a result of our discussions, we can now include in a transparency report all U.S. national security-related requests (including FISA as well as National Security Letters) — which until now no company has been permitted to do,” Ullyot said.

It’s worth noting that Google has not yet reached an agreement, sources said, but continues to push toward one.

For now, Facebook as well as other digital companies will be able to release their national security information request numbers in aggregate, giving at least some indication as to the size and the scope of governmental requests.

Update 9:02 pm PT: In response to Facebook’s disclosure on Friday evening, a Google spokesperson released a statement to AllThingsD, contending that Facebook’s deal isn’t a net positive: “We have always believed that it’s important to differentiate between different types of government requests. We already publish criminal requests separately from National Security Letters. Lumping the two categories together would be a step back for users. Our request to the government is clear: to be able to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures, separately.” (More on Google’s response in my separate story, here.)

Facebook will continue to fight for more comprehensive data disclosure numbers, sources said.

According to Facebook’s disclosure, agencies ranging from the city and state to the federal and international levels have made somewhere in the range of 9,000 to 10,000 information requests of the social giant, which concerned the profiles of between 18,000 and 19,000 Facebook user accounts.

What remains unclear is how many of these requests Facebook has complied with (The Wall Street Journal reports 79 percent), as well as the amount of information given in each case. And still, it’s unclear how many of these requests were from the NSA — a major point of interest considering the news of the past week.

“We hope this helps put into perspective the numbers involved, and lays to rest some of the hyperbolic and false assertions in some recent press accounts about the frequency and scope of the data requests that we receive,” Ullyot said.

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