Tech Companies: FISA Reporting Needs More Work

Former National Security Agent Edward Snowden’s information surveillance revelations brought with it an understandably strong reaction from technology companies. Back when the Snowden scandals first hit and public interest in government privacy violations started to draw attention, companies were quick to recognize the adverse affects these concerns could have on their business interests. As a result, companies addressed the white house with a top executive meeting with President Barack Obama.

Following his recent speech, some changes — although opinion is split on whether or not there are enough — are being made to NSA programs. Companies like Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), and others filed a petition in the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court demanding that companies be allowed to publish the number of requests for data they receive from government intelligence under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — also known as FISA. According to Boston.com, the companies are only allowed to show how many requests they are sent every six months, and then the report must be in estimates of thousands — next, the information must once again be hidden after the time for reporting is up.

Now, Google and other big tech companies including Microsoft, Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO), Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), LinkedIn (NYSE:LNKD), and Tumblr have published reports on the changes, both releasing details of their government request history, and noting the ways in which government is still restricting the flow of information, only allowing them to release ranges of data requests, rather than specific information.

“Last year, we filed a lawsuit asking the FISA Court to let us disclose the number of FISA requests we may receive and how many users/accounts they include,” reads a Google press release on the matter, written by Richard Salgado, the Legal Director at Google.

“Today, for the first time, our report on government requests for user information encompasses all of the requests we receive, subject only to delays imposed by the [Department of Justice],” he said, “We still believe more transparency is needed. Specifically, we want to disclose the precise numbers and types of requests we receive, as well as the number of users they affect in a timely way.” The content request numbers published by Google in this same press release revealed that there’s been a marketed increase in the number of user account affected by requests, up from 2000 – 2999 in 2009 to 12000 – 12999 in 2012.

Microsoft General Counsel and Executive Vice President in Legal and Corporate Affairs, Brad Smith, brought up a secondary concern in a Microsoft blog post. “Despite the President’s reform efforts and our ability to publish more information, there has not yet been any public commitment by either the U.S. or other governments to renounce the attempted hacking of Internet companies,” said Smith. While it’s impossible to comment on what public good concerns heads of such companies may have in mind, the issue of privacy regarding government scrutiny of data is certainly a business matter. If users believe they can surf elsewhere without a thought to where that information is going then the user-ship of website like Google could be threatened, making the transparency and legal appeals that much more important.

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