Tech giants urge transparency on government security

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Tech companies have urged the US government for greater transparency on requests for data from security agencies.

Google has asked the US government to let it publish details on national security requests in its transparency report, a request that was later echoed by Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft.

Google sent a letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller, the company wrote in a blog post. The letter, included in the post, asked for the ability to report aggregate numbers of national security requests.

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By asking to publish the number of security requests, Google is seeking to “show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made,” David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, wrote in the letter.

“Google has nothing to hide,” Drummond’s letter said. Transparency will “serve the public interest without harming national security”, he said.

Computer giant Microsoft and social networks Facebook and Twitter soon followed suit.

“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 a statement. “Our recent report went as far as we legally could and the government should take action to allow companies to provide additional transparency”.

Facebook’s statement came just hours after those of Google and Microsoft.

“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,” Facebook said 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,” the company said.

Alexander Macgillivray, Twitter’s general counsel, said in a statement that the microblogging service supports Google’s efforts.

Facebook, Google and Microsoft are among nine internet companies that have come under scrutiny following disclosures in the Guardian and Washington Post of their roles in a National Security Agency data collection program named PRISM.

The Obama administration confirmed the existence of classified programs to collect data on US residents’ telephone calls and foreign nationals’ internet activity on June 6.

Obama defended the practice, saying the government’s efforts are “modest encroachments” on privacy legally authorised by Congress and important to thwarting terrorist attacks.

Academics and security experts say there’s a broad range of ways to harness the systems of the largest technology providers to monitor email, photos and video chats on the web.

Google said it complies with valid legal requests and doesn’t give the US government unfettered access to users’ data. Google said that by publishing data about the requests in its Transparency Report, it will be able to prove to users that their data is mostly protected without harming national security. The report tracks requests for user data from courts and governments worldwide.

Facebook, Yahoo! and Microsoft said they hand over data to the government only when required by law to do so. AOL, Apple and Paltalk.com all released statements saying they’ve never heard of the government monitoring program, called PRISM, and don’t give the government direct access to servers without a court order.

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