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Microsoft Sees Doubling Of US Government Spy Data Requests

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Redmond also, for the first time ever, publishes national security letter used by government to obtain user data

Microsoft has published its biannual transparency report in which it revealed that the US government has more than doubled the number of data requests for clandestine intelligence purposes.

The US government often seeks user data from tech firm using the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), but Microsoft’s report has revealed that the number of data requests in the first half of 2016 was more than double it received in the prior six months.

And Microsoft also for the first time published a national security letter (NSL), a warrantless surveillance order used by the FBI to obtain user data. NSLs do not require judicial approval.

AirbusUS Intelligence

The FBI reportedly uses NSLs, often in conjunction with temporary gag orders, to quietly acquire information on technology companies’ users.

But it is the number of US foreign intelligence surveillance requests that is the more troubling for privacy campaigners.

The report reveals that Microsoft has received doubled the number of data requests in the first half of 2016, compared to the second half of 2015.

Redmond said that it had received between 0 and 499 FISA requests in both the first and second halves of 2015. However things changed dramtically in 2016, when Microsoft received between 1,000 and 1,499 FISA requests from January to June 2016.

Microsoft noted that this was the highest number of data requests it had tracked since 2011, when it began tracking such government surveillance orders.

FISA requests are highly secretive and are often used by the US government to gather foreign intelligence data and monitor people suspected of engaging in espionage.

FISA orders (unlike NSLs) are approved by judges who sit on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Parts of the FISA legislation are expected to expire at the end of this year, unless US lawmakers reauthorise it.

FISA orders are an especially sensitive subject at the moment considering the recent allegations by President Donald Trump that the Obama White House improperly spied on Trump and his associates.

The good news however for privacy campaigners is that despite the increase in FISA requests, the overall amount of users affected by the FISA requests has actually decreased, from between 17,500 and 17,999 to between 12,000 and 12,499.

Law Enforcement

Microsoft also revealed that in the latter half of 2016, it received a total number of 25,837 legal requests for customer information from law enforcement agencies.

Redmond said that this now brought the total number of requests from law enforcement for 2016 to 61,409, a significant decrease from 2015, when requests totalled 74,311.

Most of these law enforcement demands (71 percent) came from a small number of countries, namely the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany.

“As part of the release of these reports, we are also disclosing a National Security Letter (NSL) we received from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 2014, which sought data belonging to a customer of our consumer services,” said Microsoft in a blog positing.

“Microsoft is the latest in a series of companies able to disclose an NSL due to provisions in the USA Freedom Act requiring the FBI to review previously issued non-disclosure orders,” it said. “The NSL was included in the aggregate data of a previous report, but we’re newly able to disclose its content for this reporting period.”

“We believe transparency is essential to accountability and building trust in technology,” it said. “We are committed to upholding these principles in our practices and our reporting.”

Microsoft had joined forces with Google back in 2013 to sue the US government for the right to disclose FISA data requests.

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