The Justice Department on Monday announced that it will permit companies like Google to publish the number of request they receive under a controversial program that forces them to disclose their customers’ information under strict gag orders.
The news could mean the end of a bitter fight between the government and prominent tech companies that has been taking place before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — a secret spy court that grants NSA surveillance orders. The Justice Department also released a draft order that will result in the dismissal of lawsuits filed by Google, Microsoft, Facebook, LinkedIn and Yahoo. The tech companies offered the following statement:
“We filed our lawsuits because we believe that the public has a right to know about the volume and types of national security requests we receive. We’re pleased the Department of Justice has agreed that we and other providers can disclose this information. While this is a very positive step, we’ll continue to encourage Congress to take additional steps to address all of the reforms we believe are needed.”
Google and Microsoft sued the Justice Department last year, demanding the right to include so-called “FISA letters” in their periodic transparency reports that show how many times the government requests information through various methods such as search warrants and National Security Letters. The FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) letters force the government to turn over customer data without even disclosing they have received a letter.
The government has until now argued that the tech companies’ should not be able say how many letters they receive — even within a broad range — on the grounds it could tip enemies to America’s surveillance practices.
In Monday’s announcement, however, the Justice Department says that, in the spirit of President Obama’s desire to be more transparent, the companies can now report the numbers under two distinct methods: one that provides a 0-999 figure for all FISA letters, and another in which they can report the FISA letters lumped in with other type of security requests. More details can be found in the government’s letter below.
The Justice Department’s concessions are unlikely to comfort privacy advocates who remain highly uneasy about the pervasive spying practices disclosed in an ongoing series of leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Here is the document describing the new disclosure methods, followed by the call to dismiss the FISA court case.
This story was updated at 5:52pm with the tech companies’ statement.