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Facebook and other companies may now share more about government data requests

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On Monday, January 27, Josh Constine of TechCrunch reported that Internet companies such as Facebook, Google and LinkedIn will now be able to reveal more to the public about requests the U.S. federal government made for information about their users.

According to Constine, "... Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, and LinkedIn today were given the right to disclose more details on the data requests and orders they receive from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court after suing the government for months to declassify these numbers.

"The Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper released a statement today, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, that says 'Through these new reporting methods, communications providers will be permitted to disclose more information than ever before to their customers. The office of the Director of National Intelligence…has determined that the public interest in disclosing this information now outweighs the national security concerns that required its classification.'

"Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, and LinkedIn all agreed to drop their lawsuits in exchange for the declassification."

On Monday, January 27, Matt Apuzzo of The New York Times provided some background that helps explain the significance of this decision.

According to Apuzzo, "The dispute began last year after a former government contractor, Edward J. Snowden, revealed that F.B.I. and National Security Agency surveillance programs rely heavily on data from U.S. email providers, video-chat services and social-networking companies.

"Sometimes, F.B.I. agents demand data with administrative subpoenas known as national security letters. Other times, the Justice Department makes the demand under the authority of the surveillance court but without a specific warrant.

"Either way, the justification is typically secret and companies are prohibited from saying much

"The companies wanted to be able to say how many times they received court orders, known as FISA orders because of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The government opposed that."

Apuzzo went on to add that there are restrictions on how specific the companies can be about the data requests and how often they can publish updates for their customers..

According to Apuzzo, "Under the new agreement, companies will be able to disclose the existence of FISA court orders. But they must choose between being more specific about the number of demands or about the type of demands.

"Companies that want to disclose the number of FISA orders and national security letters separately can do so as long as they only publish in increments of 1,000.

"Or, companies can narrow the figure to increments of 250, but only if they lump FISA court orders and national security letters together.

"... The companies will be allowed to publish the information every six months, with a six-month delay. So data published at midyear would cover the last half of the previous year."

Devlin Barrett of the Wall Street Journal added that these reports can include information about customer accounts.

According to Barrett, "The companies would also be allowed to say, in similar general numbers, how many customer accounts are affected by the requests, the officials said. Companies would be allowed to share the number of law enforcement and National Security Letter requests they receive in real time, but there would be a six-month delay in reporting the number of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court requests."

In practical terms, what this means for social media users in the greater Spokane area is that they will soon be able to have a better idea of how much data federal agencies asked for last year, but they still may not be able to find out if their personal accounts were accessed one or more times during the periods covered by the reports.

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