In an open letter addressed to U.S. attorney general Eric Holder and FBI director Robert Mueller, Google chief legal officer David Drummond again insisted that reports of his company freely offering user data to the NSA and other agencies were untrue. “However,” he wrote, “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.”
In light of that, Drummond had a request of the two men: “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.” Apparently Google’s numbers would show “that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made.”
Google, Drummond added, “has nothing to hide.”
As part of its regularly updated Transparency Report, Google posts information about the National Security Letters (NSLs) it receives from the federal government. “When conducting national security investigations, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation can issue a National Security Letter (NSL) to obtain identifying information about a subscriber from telephone and Internet companies,” Richard Salgado, legal director for Google’s Law Enforcement and Information Security, wrote in a March 5 posting on the Google Public Policy Blog.
However, the government requires Google to report NSLs as a numerical range rather than an exact number. “This is to address concerns raised by the FBI, Justice Department and other agencies that releasing exact numbers might reveal information about investigations,” Salgado added in that same posting.
In his current letter to the attorney general and FBI director, Drummond is basically asking for that policy to be revised.
Late last week, The Guardian and The Washington Post posted articles describing an NSA project codenamed PRISM, which allegedly siphons information from the databases of nine major technology companies: Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple. Both papers derived their information from Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee who also worked as a contractor for the NSA, and who provided top-secret documents detailing a range of U.S. surveillance programs.
In emails to Slashdot, many of those companies—including Google—denied giving the NSA access to user data.
Even if Google does end up displaying more information about government requests, it doesn’t seem as if many Americans are dismayed about their privacy being invaded: according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center and The Washington Post (conducted after the Snowden story broke), concerns about terrorist threats outweigh the need for privacy.
“Currently 62 [percent] say it is more important for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy,” read the survey’s summary. “Just 34 [percent] say it is more important for the government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats.”
That’s not much of a change from an ABC News/Washington Post survey conducted in January 2006. A majority of Americans (56 percent) also thought it was acceptable for the NSA to secure secret court orders to track millions of Americans’ phone calls.
In other words, while securing some sort of data-transparency agreement from the government might make Google look good, it’s safe to say that a majority of Americans aren’t too concerned about the government wanting user data.