Hoping to divert complaints about recent National Security Agency (NSA) revelations back to the US government—where they arguably belong—some of the biggest technology firms this week issued public calls for more transparency. Facebook, Google, and Microsoft this week asked to be able to publicize the volume of requests made and complied with under the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
“Permitting greater transparency on the aggregate volume and scope of national security requests, including FISA orders, would help the community understand and debate these important issues," a Microsoft statement reads. “Our recent report went as far as we legally could, and the government should take action to allow companies to provide additional transparency.”
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The issue here is more than a bit convoluted. Under the law, tech companies must respond and comply in some way with FISA requests, but they are not allowed to fully disclose that these requests were made in the first place. Some tech companies, notably Google and Microsoft, have in recent days published so-called “transparency reports” that provided as much information as possible under the current law about these requests. But these reports are, by nature, not exactly transparent.
Of course, the NSA revelations aren’t just about FISA transparency. The most explosive part of last week’s revelations was the claim that this most secretive of US government agencies has colluded with the biggest tech companies on Earth to establish “back door” access into their systems. This is a claim that these companies, one by one, have staunchly denied.
Google has been the quickest and most vocal in addressing this matter.
“We refuse to participate in any program—for national security or other reasons—that requires us to provide governments with access to our systems or to install their equipment on our networks,” a Google spokesperson said. “The US government does not have direct access or a ‘back door’ to the information stored in our data centers.”
This week, Google began the call for greater transparency as well, noting in a public letter to the US Attorney General and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that it always complies with “valid” legal requests but is hobbled by FISA nondisclosure obligations. What Google is seeking to do is publicly prove that the number of FISA requests it honors is far, far smaller than the number of requests it receives. Microsoft, Facebook, and others have since issued similar statements.
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