Google asks US govt to report full scale of NSA data requests

12 Jun 2013

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In a letter to the US Attorney General and the FBI, Google’s chief legal officer David Drummond has asked the US government to publicly reveal the full scale and volume of apparently secret court orders with which it is alleged to have opened up information to the National Security Agency via PRISM. “Google has nothing to hide,” Drummond said.

Google has been named among a number of major internet brands, including Facebook, Apple and Microsoft, as companies whose servers were being accessed by US intelligence agencies under a programme called PRISM, to spy on the online activities of users inside and outside of the US.

A whistleblower and former CIA contractor named Edward Snowden, on the run in Hong Kong, leaked documents to the media revealing how US intelligence agencies were gathering information on US and overseas internet and mobile phone users.

The revelations have rocked the Obama Administration and the US president has defended the work of the NSA and other agencies saying a “balance” had been struck in terms of defending the US against potential terrorist attacks.

Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg said last week he hadn’t even heard of PRISM prior to the publication of the revelations.

Yesterday, Mozilla, Reddit, 4chan and more than 80 other organisations, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote a letter to the US Congress calling for a halt to NSA online surveillance.

Google’s chief legal officer David Drummond pointed out last night that Google’s entire existence is centred on the trust of users and said there was no secret deal with US security authorities.

In a letter to the US Attorney General and the FBI, Drummond wrote: “Google has worked tremendously hard over the past 15 years to earn our users’ trust. For example, we offer encryption across our services; we have hired some of the best security engineers in the world; and we have consistently pushed back on overly broad government requests for our users’ data.

“We have always made clear that we comply with valid legal requests. And last week, the director of National Intelligence acknowledged that service providers have received Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests.”

Unfettered access claims untrue, says Google

Drummond said that assertions in the press that its compliance with these requests gives the US government unfettered access to users’ data are simply untrue. “However, government nondisclosure obligations regarding the number of FISA national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests, fuel that speculation.

“We therefore ask you to help make it possible for Google to publish in our Transparency Report aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures – in terms of both the number we receive and their scope. Google’s numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made. Google has nothing to hide.”

Drummond reminded both the Attorney General and FBI that they authorised the recent disclosure of general numbers for national security letters and said there have been no adverse consequences.

“In fact, more people are receiving your approval to do so as a result of Google’s initiative.

“Transparency here will likewise serve the public interest without harming national security,” Drummond advised.

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com