Summary:

Until last week, Google and other tech companies were under gag orders that forbade them from disclosing how often they have had to turn customer information over to the National Security Agency. Now, they’re publishing numbers.

Sunlight, sun, forest
photo: Peshkova

Until last week, Google and other internet companies were barred from disclosing how often the National Security Agency collects information under programs like PRISM, a surveillance system disclosed last summer by former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden. The ban ended last week when the U.S. government settled a bitter lawsuit that the tech industry had filed in America’s secret spy court.

As a result, Google and others can now list NSA letters in its Transparency Report, a semi-annual publication that shows how often governments collect information about internet users and, in the case of the United States, the legal process they use to do so. In response to the court settlement, Google has already published new numbers that disclose that the federal government is obtaining the contents of thousands of accounts (most likely Gmail and Blogger accounts) which suggests the program is bigger than the White House has let on.

Here is a screenshot that shows how many times the government has obtained not just account information (for instance an email or IP address) but actual user content, like Gmail messages:

Google transparency screenshot

The graph contains two important pieces of information: 1) a single NSA “request” often covers multiple people; 2) the number of NSA “requests” is rising significantly every year (though the figure appears to have plateaued last year).

Facebook’s numbers reflect a similar story:

FB screenshot of NSA

The other companies involved in the lawsuit over gag orders — Yahoo, Microsoft and LinkedIn — likewise published numbers showing a similar trend. The numbers they publish are restricted to aggregate ranges, under the terms of last week’s settlement.

It should be noted that the NSA letters are one just one part of a complicated security apparatus that also includes National Security Letters (which the FBI uses to obtain account information about Americans) and warrants and subpoenas, used by the FBI and state and federal law enforcement agencies for criminal investigations of all sorts.

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