Dear NSA, Please Let Us Be More Transparent

white house“We the undersigned are writing to urge greater transparency around national security-related requests by the U.S. government to Internet, telephone, and web-based service providers for information about their users and subscribers,” began a letter sent to President Barack Obama, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Attorney General Eric Holder, National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander, and key members of the House of Representatives and Senate.

Since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents to The Washington Post and The Guardian in June that identified several technology companies — including Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO), Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) – as participants in the NSA’s PRISM program, many civil liberties organizations have pressured the government to shed light on the government’s requests for user data. Now, these individual efforts have culminated in the joint appeal that was published Thursday.

Together, a coalition of tech companies, including those PRISM participants, as well as civil liberties groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Watch, asked the White House and Congress to relax secrecy surrounding the government’s data collection practices. In total, the letter had 63 signatories, making it one of the loudest and most impressive calls for the federal government to disclose more information regarding federal intelligence agency surveillance requests.

The letter had two very specific requests. First, its authors asked the U.S. government to ensure that “those companies who are entrusted with the privacy and security of their users’ data” are allowed to report statistics on a regular basis that reflect the number of government requests, the number of individuals, accounts, or devices for which the information was requested, and the number of government requests per agency or branch. In particular, they want the ability to publish specific numbers without first seeking permission from the government or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, the letter noted.

Second, they requested that the government augment the annual reporting that is already statutorily required, by issuing a regular “transparency report.”

The pointed part of the message came in the second to last paragraph of the letter, where its authors detailed the importance of transparency. The authors described how important information regarding the government’s data collection requests are to the American people, who are “entitled to have an informed public debate” about the appropriateness of such measures, and to U.S.-based technology companies that are concerned about the security of their communications.

“Just as the United states has long been an innovator when it comes to the Internet, and products and services that rely upon the Internet, so too should it be an innovator when it comes to creating mechanisms to ensure that government is transparent, accountable, and respectful of civil liberties and human rights,” concluded the letter. “We look forward to working with you to set a standard for transparency reporting that can serve as a positive example for governments across the globe.”

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS 

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