Verizon: 'No comment' on FISA court challenge, as Foursquare, WordPress join anti-secrecy fight

While Verizon remains mum on challenging any secret U.S. court order that authorizes the mass vacuuming of U.S. and international data, a growing number of technology firms are calling on Congress for greater transparency and data request reporting.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor

Verizon is in a real pickle.

As a result of the first round of leaks by former U.S. National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, we know that Verizon is subject to a secret U.S. court order, in which the telecoms giant must hand over every shred of data it has to the U.S. government for its mass surveillance efforts.

The telco knows it. The U.S. government knows it. And we — dare I say "thanks" — to Snowden, now know it too. 

Because the order was so broad and encompassed almost every shred of Verizon customer data, we can all but assume that other major telecom companies are under similar orders. It ties in with the NSA's "Upstream" program, which ZDNet's investigative work detailed between the second and third major rounds of leaks. 

We can assume, but we may never know for sure. 

Speaking to a Verizon spokesperson on the phone early Monday, the company declined to comment on whether or not it will challenge any court order — that may or may not exist in the company's eyes. 

It comes just days after Verizon's vice president of national security policy Marcus Sachs reportedly made controversial comments in regards to customer privacy. "Don't look at us to protect your data. That's on you," according to writer Jill Scharr, speaking to him last week at the Cyber Security Summit 2013 in New York City.

Sachs, also on the phone, claimed the comments were "taken wholly out of context," but confirmed the quotes were accurate. 

One person with knowledge of the situation told ZDNet that the company, as a telco, is heavily regulated and the laws it falls under are far greater than the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which apply more so to software and technology companies. Under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, a telco can be forced to hand over "all tangible things," including customer data. He added that Verizon may have filed a case under seal, but it would not be allowed to disclose any information until a time where the documents were released by the court.

Meanwhile, the Microsoft's, the Yahoo's, the Google's, and the bevy of other firms ready to take on the U.S. government, are drumming up support with more firms adding themselves to the list to demand U.S. government data requests.

Now, Foursquare, Twilio, and Automattic, the creator of WordPress.com, have added their names to the list, joining Apple, CloudFlare, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Yahoo, among others, calling on Congress for greater transparency.

In a letter to Congress, the technology giants and startups asked for Washington to "quickly move forward to consider legislation that would provide greater transparency around national security-related requests by the U.S. government to Internet, telephone, and web-based service providers for information about their users and subscribers."

They voiced their "strong support" for the proposed Surveillance Transparency Act 2013 and the Surveillance Order Reporting Act 2013, which would clarify that companies have the right to publish basic information about the requests they receive. 

These two acts would include the reporting of both National Security Letters (NSLs) as well as orders received under FISA.

NSLs, which were greatly expanded under Section 505 of the Patriot Act, allows the U.S. government to gag a company from disclosing certain facts, such as whether or not a person, or a number of people, were targeted for specific reasons. This provision means that while companies have been allowed to disclose a numerical range of orders it received, they have not yet been permitted to disclose the exact number of gagging orders they have been forced to comply with. 

The argument is that the number of NSLs disclosed by companies does not threaten national security. Everyone knows that NSLs exist, thanks to court action in the not-so-distant past. Also, the provisions of the law spell out such capabilities.

Separately, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Yahoo have all filed motions in the secretive FISA court (FISC) to allow them to release aggregate data about the number of requests they receive from U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies. 

The U.S. Justice Department is expected to file a motion blocking the request on Tuesday.

Here's the letter in full:

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