Kevin Johnson and Byron Acohido, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - Internet companies will be allowed to disclose more information about how often the government requires them to turn over customer data as part of an agreement announced Monday by the Justice Department.
The rules, outlined in a letter to executives representing Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and LinkedIn and filed along with a notice to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), lift a prohibition that barred technology companies from disclosing information about the government's surveillance requests.
In the aftermath of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden's disclosures about the government's surveillance strategies, the companies had been seeking authority to release information about the government's requests, which are filed with the FISC.
"The administration is acting to allow more detailed disclosures about the number of national security orders and requests issued to communications providers, the number of customer accounts targeted under those orders ... and the underlying legal authorities,'' Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a joint statement.
Under terms of the agreement, the government will allow the companies to make more information public by using one of two options. The first option allows companies to publish the number of demands for information under so-called national security letters issued by the FBI, and separate orders issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in increments of 1,000. A second option would allow the reporting of combined requests of all national security letters and FISA orders in increments of 250. Both options would limit the publication to twice each year, with a required six-month delay between the publication date and the periods covered in the specific information requests.
"This is a victory for transparency and a critical step toward reining in excessive government surveillance," said Alex Abdo, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project.
"Companies must be allowed to report basic information about what they're giving the government so that Americans can decide for themselves whether the NSA's spying has gone too far. It is commendable that the companies pressed the government for more openness, but even more is needed.''
Dave Jevans, chief technology officer at mobile security firm Marble Security, said the new rules "will help consumers realize that they are in a surveillance state, for better or worse."
"The good thing about these changes is that it will allow the public to see big changes in trends, and react to them," Jevans said, adding that he believed that there would be little impact on the government's overall surveillance effort.
"Everyone knows the scope of surveillance," Jevans said. "The time delays and the bucketing of requests give citizens a heartbeat on surveillance, without the ability to gain any details."