Google asks the U.S. to lift gag order on national security requests

In an open letter to the United States Attorney General and the director of the FBI, Google’s Chief Legal Officer says that the government-ordered nondisclosure agreement on legal demands for information is “fueling speculation” and that claims made in the press are exaggerated.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

“Google has nothing to hide.”

That’s the key message Google’s Chief Legal Officer, David Drummond, tried to communicate in an open letter to United States Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller.

The company’s reputation for protecting user information took a beating last week when the Guardian and the Washington Post published bombshell stories based on leaked PowerPoint slides. The Post claimed, based on the Top Secret documents, that the National Security Agency and the FBI “are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies,” including Google and its subsidiary YouTube. AOL, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft (and its subsidiary Skype), PalTalk, and Yahoo were also named directly in the Guardian and Post stories.

The original published version of the story said that Google and the other large tech companies “participate knowingly” in the widespread spying operations, which fall under a program known as PRISM. Subsequent revisions to the story backed off those claims, and a follow-up story in the Post acknowledged that the “direct access” claim was “technically inaccurate,” but the damage was already done.

According to Google, the government’s insistence on absolute secrecy for national security requests made under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is compounding the problem and damaging Google’s reputation.

We have always made clear that we comply with valid legal requests. And last week, the Director of National Intelligence acknowledged that service providers have received Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests.

Assertions in the press that our compliance with these requests gives the U.S. government unfettered access to our users’ data are simply untrue. However, government nondisclosure obligations regarding the number of FISA national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests, fuel that speculation.

We therefore ask you to help make it possible for Google to publish in our Transparency Report aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures—in terms of both the number we receive and their scope. Google’s numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made. Google has nothing to hide.

If the request is granted – a very big if, indeed – Google would be able to include those details in its transparency reports. Microsoft has a similar reporting program, as does Twitter.

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