Google filed legal papers with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on Tuesday in an attempt to provide the American public with more knowledge about the government’s ongoing requests for personal data.
Through a provision in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, the federal government can and do routinely compel Internet companies such as Google for the personal data pertaining to its users. Those requests regularly are accompanied with a gag-order, though, making it illegal for Web entities to even express the scope of the surveillance.
Last week Google wrote the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in hopes that Washington will change the rules for those FISA requests in the wake of the surveillance scandal that has plagued the government since former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden released classified National Security Agency documents to The Guardian. Now just one week after that first letter was published, the Washington Post reported that Google took their complaint to court.
According to the Post’s Craig Timberg, Google filed legal papers with the downtown Washington, DC FISA court on Tuesday, “arguing that the company has a constitutional right to speak about information it’s forced to give the government.”
In the petition, Google asks the court to start allowing them to publish raw figures pertaining to the number of requests filed under the surveillance act.
“Greater transparency is needed, so today we have petitioned the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to allow us to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures, separately,” the company said in a statement obtained by the Post.
In the letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller last week, Google said that publishing the numbers “would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made. Google has nothing to hide.”
Google and other big Web companies regularly publish information about law enforcement requests that compel them for user data, but the FISA rules prohibit them from publically documenting exactly how many of those they really receiving.
Yesterday, competitors Yahoo! made a similar, informal request on their website:
“Like all companies, Yahoo! cannot lawfully break out FISA request numbers at this time because those numbers are classified; however, we strongly urge the federal government to reconsider its stance on this issue,” they wrote.
Days earlier, Microsoft Vice President John Frank wrote on a blog post, “We continue to believe that what we are permitted to publish continues to fall short of what is needed to help the community understand and debate these issues.”
Along with AOL, Apple, Facebook, PalTalk, Skype and YouTube, Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google have all been linked in documents leaked by Snowden as participating in an ominous NSA surveillance program operated under the name PRISM. Those companies have since attempted to engage full-out damage control, but during an online chat on Monday, Snowden said those denials “were misleading.”
“They are legally compelled to comply and maintain their silence in regard to specifics of the program, but that does not comply them from ethical obligation. If for example Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple (AAPL) refused to provide this cooperation with the Intelligence Community, what do you think the government would do? Shut them down?” he said.
In his first interview with The Guardian, Snowden said, “I’m willing to sacrifice all that because I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people all around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”
Earlier Tuesday, NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander said the leaks attributed to Snowden caused “irreversible and significant damage to the US.”