To help clear their names after classified information was leaked about PRISM, the National Security Administration’s secret surveillance program, several tech companies have asked the U.S. government for permission to disclose the number of requests they receive for user data.
Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) and Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) have apparently struck a deal and revealed some of that information Friday. Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and Twitter have not followed suit, saying that the deal, which requires the companies to lump criminal requests and national security requests together, is a step in the wrong direction.
Facebook issued a statement that said it had received between 8,000 and 9,000 requests in the second half of 2012. These requests related to as many as 19,000 individual user accounts. A significant number, but barely a drop in the bucket of Facebook’s 1.1 billion active users.
Microsoft revealed that it received 6,000 to 7,000 requests from the government in the same time frame. Those requests sought information on as many as 32,000 accounts.
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“These requests run the gamut -- from things like a local sheriff trying to find a missing child, to a federal marshal tracking a fugitive, to a police department investigating an assault, to a national security official investigating a terrorist threat,” Ted Ullyot, Facebook’s general counsel, wrote in the statement.
Facebook and Microsoft were only allowed to give approximate ranges of the number of requests they received, and they were not allowed to distinguish which requests were granted under the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act, or FISA. For this reason, Google and Twitter have both stated that will not disclose the number of requests they received.
“We have always believed that it’s important to differentiate between different types of government requests,” Google told AllThingsD. “We already publish criminal requests separately from National Security Letters. Lumping the two categories together would be a step back for our users.”
Google reiterated the request it made in a public letter to the Attorney General to publish aggregate numbers of NSL and FISA requests separately. Benjamin Lee, the legal director at Twitter, stated that Twitter would take the same position as Google.
We agree with @Google: It's important to be able to publish numbers of national security requests—including FISA disclosures—separately.
— Benjamin Lee (@BenL) June 15, 2013
In a blog post, John Frank, Microsoft’s vice president and deputy general counsel, took the position that disclosing these numbers may not be enough to assuage its customers' privacy concerns, but Microsoft hopes it can take further steps in the future.
“Transparency alone may not be enough to restore public confidence, but it’s a great place to start.”
Should Google and Twitter follow the steps taken by Microsoft and Facebook, or are they correct that doing so would be a step in the wrong direction? Let us know in the comments section.