Close this menu

Pulling Back the Shroud of Secrecy on Government Surveillance

We all get that when it comes to government surveillance there has to be secrecy. At the same time there must be some degree of accountability. To achieve this balance we need reasonable transparency – transparency the government is trying to block.

For years online service providers sought reveal more information about government snooping on their users. Providers like Yahoo, Aol, and Google created transparency reports to show the quantity of surveillance requests they were getting. But one component service providers weren’t allowed to share was the number of National Security Letters (NSL) and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests they received from the government.

[pullquote]The obscurity helps government agencies hide larger requests – why make just one FISA request when requesting 975 produces the same reported value.[/pullquote]This January, the U.S. Government finally agreed to allow some disclosure – unfortunately, the government didn’t allow much. It limited service providers’ disclosure of the number of NSA and FISA requests to only blocks of one thousand. That’s right, if a service provider receives five FISA requests or five hundred, we’ll never know the difference.

This chunking of FISA and NSL requests hides the real numbers and minimizes the privacy efforts of online service providers. While the limitations hurt our ability to review government surveillance practices, the obscurity helps government agencies hide larger requests – why make just one FISA request when requesting 975 produces the same reported value.

Thankfully, online service providers continue to fight against unfettered government surveillance and challenge the government’s hamstringing of transparency reports. Earlier this month, Twitter issued a new challenge to the government by suing for the right to release its entire surveillance transparency report including the real number of NSL and FISA requests instead of chunks.

Of course, specific numbers shouldn’t be a tough ask. While some secrecy is no doubt justified on national security grounds, this prohibition seems more designed to spare the U.S. Government embarrassment than out of any safety or security concern.

The disclosure issue is only one piece of the tech industry’s growing leadership on surveillance reform. Google’s Eric Schmidt said that the international response to U.S. surveillance – such as growing data localization requirements – represents a growing obstacle to U.S. companies seeking to engage around the world.

We are incredibly proud of our industry’s leadership on this issue, and its commitment to shining light on surveillance practices. It’s a brave stance that reflects the best of what the Internet community has to offer.

But online service providers cannot effect change on their own. It falls to congressional leaders, and, in this most recent case, the courts, to moderate secrecy rules that are out of line with the public interest.


Image via Flickr – Charlie Barker