Google Fights US Surveillance Gagging Order

Tom Brewster is TechWeek Europe's Security Correspondent. He has also been named BT Information Security Journalist of the Year in 2012 and 2013.

Google asks the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court if it can be more open about FISA requests

Google has appealed against a gagging order preventing it and others from talking in more detail about how much user data the US government asks for. The request has gone to the very same court that approves the surveillance requests, which Google is not allowed to talk about.

The US government can request surveillance data on foreign nationals under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. These requests are overseen by a specially constituted Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court and their existence cannot be disclosed. Recent leaks by whistleblower Edward Snowden about the PRISM programme have led to calls for more openness, however.

Google’s direct appeal follows attempts of its rivals, including Apple, Facebook and Microsoft, to reveal a little of the extent of FISA surveillance, while keeping to the letter of the law, by lumping together FISA and non-FISA requests, and releasing aggregate data of all requests made by the US government. Google said this is a backward step, however.

Verizon was ordered to hand over customers’ communications data by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and it is believed data disclosed under FISA is processed by the PRISM tool, which some believe has direct access to Internet firms’ servers.

gag privacy security fisa© Mert Toker ShutterstockGoogle petitions surveillance court

“We have petitioned the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to allow us to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures, separately. Lumping national security requests together with criminal requests – as some companies have been permitted to do – would be a backward step for our users,” the firm said in a Google+ post.

“We have long pushed for transparency so users can better understand the extent to which governments request their data… However, greater transparency is needed.”

Upon releasing their aggregated information, Google’s competitors called for greater transparency from the US, as they all fight back against claims they provided the National Security Agency with direct access to their servers, following leaks of whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

Yahoo was the latest company to release information on surveillance data requests, revealing it had received between 12,000 and 13,000 requests in total between 1 December 2012 and 31 May 2013.

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