People in the greater Spokane area who are concerned about their privacy may be relieved to hear that Facebook and Google have joined Yahoo in asking the government to allow them to reveal how many information requests they receive from government agencies, according to a report written by Benjamin Pimentel of MarketWatch on Tuesday, September 10.
According to Pimentel, " Yahoo on Monday said it has filed a suit in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court [FISC] 'demanding the right to publicly disclose the number of user data requests that we receive from the U.S. Government under national security statutes.'
"Also on Monday, Google said it has filed an amended petition to the controversial court also demanding that the company be 'allowed to publish detailed statistics about the types (if any) of national security requests we receive under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.'
"Facebook on Monday announced that it has joined other companies in making the same demand, arguing in a blog post, 'We believe there is more information that the public deserves to know, and that would help foster an informed debate about whether government security programs adequately balance privacy interests when attempting to keep the public safe.'"
On Monday, September 9, Chris Davies of Slashgear discussed the petitions and why these companies deemed them to be necessary.
According to Davies, "The complaint echoes similar concerns that Google and Microsoft voiced earlier this year, after the news of the PRISM program broke following revelations by whistle-blower Edward Snowden. According to [Yahoo General Counsel Ron Bell], 'withholding such information breeds mistrust and suspicion—both of the United States and of companies that must comply with government legal directives.'
"... despite Microsoft and Google’s efforts at negotiation with the government over the past months, so far it has proved unwilling to soften its stance. In fact, the two companies recently admitted that legal action was the only route they envisaged having any result.
"The U.S. government has grown a little more open, with agreements to release aggregate annual data on data mining like phone logs and internet communications. However, it’s generally agreed that those moves are insufficient."
Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch said that in June of 2013 the U.S. government began allowing Facebook and several other companies to disclose some of the details about the information requests they receive.
According to Stretch, "... we and a number of other companies were permitted to release, within a range, the total number of law enforcement requests for user data we received in a given period, including not just criminal matters, but also all U.S. national security-related requests (including FISA as well as National Security Letters).
"That was an important step. It permitted us to release information that directly refuted many of the outlandish and false media reports circulating at the time. And it allowed us to make clear that a vanishingly small number of people who use Facebook – a tiny fraction of one percent – were the subject of any kind of U.S. government request in the past year."
Stretch went on to say that those concessions by the government did not go far enough. Facebook has not been allowed to go on the record about how many of those requests are national security-related. They also have not been able to reveal how many requests they get about the content of users’ accounts.
According to Stretch, "In recent weeks, it has become clear that the dialogue with the U.S. government that produced some additional transparency at the outset is at this point unlikely to result in more progress. As a result, today we are joining others in the industry in petitioning the [FISC] to require the government to permit companies to disclose more information about the volume and types of national security-related orders they receive.
"As we have said many times, we believe that while governments have an important responsibility to keep people safe, it is possible to do so while also being transparent. We hope and believe the action we take today will help spur the United States government to provide greater transparency about its efforts aimed at keeping the public safe, and we will continue to be aggressive advocates for greater disclosure."
If the requests for more transparency work, people in the Spokane area who use Facebook or Google+ may have less reason to worry about who is reading the content they post on those popular social media networks. As always, people who are concerned about who sees their status updates and other things they share should make sure they know how to customize their privacy settings.