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10 Sep, 2013 20:55

Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo file motions to reveal NSA data requests

Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo file motions to reveal NSA data requests

Facebook and Yahoo, have joined Google and Microsoft in addressing the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to legally allow them to make public the data requests received from the NSA as part of the infamous PRISM program.

Microsoft and Google filed motions to the FISA court in August, but the proceedings were delayed at the US government’s request to allow time to negotiate. Since then no common ground has been found between the state and the tech giants.

On Monday, Google updated its request, asking for the company to be “allowed to publish detailed statistics about the types (if any) of national security requests we receive under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, including Section 702.”

“Given the important public policy issues at stake, we have also asked the court to hold its hearing in open rather than behind closed doors. It's time for more transparency,"
Google’s director of law enforcement and information security, Richard Salgado, and the director of public policy and government affairs, Pablo Chavez, wrote in a blog post.

The company’s stance is that “the levels of secrecy that have built up around national security requests undermine the basic freedoms that are at the heart of a democratic society."

Microsoft also amended its petition on September 9 as it earlier pledged to work with Google in their bid to release Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) request information.

Meanwhile, the battle for transparency was joined by Facebook and Yahoo!, who also decided to file their claims to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.   

The US government hasn’t done enough to “adequately address” the public concerns about “whether their information is safe and secure with internet companies,” says Facebook's vice president and general council, Colin Stretch. 

"We believe there’s more information that the public deserves to know, and that would help foster an informed debate about whether government security programs adequately balance privacy interests when attempting to keep the public safe," he said. 

In its petition, Facebook asked to publish the total number of orders it receives relating to physical searches, business records and wiretap orders, as well as the total number of users, who had their messages and other personal content released to the NSA.

Yahoo filed a petition similar to Google's as the company named specific FISA orders, on which it wanted to publish more details.

The company says it has been unable to engage fully in the debate about whether the government has “properly used its powers”, because it has imposed a restraint on Yahoo's freedom of speech.

"We believe that the US government's important responsibility to protect public safety can be carried out without precluding internet companies from sharing the number of national security requests they may receive," Ron Bell, general counsel for Yahoo, Is cited by the Guardian.

"Ultimately, withholding such information breeds mistrust and suspicion – both of the United States and of companies that must comply with government legal directives," he added.

Google and Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo have been allegedly been involved in giving the National Security Agency access to customer data under the program known as Prism. The Internet giants are now determined to correct “false claims” and reports about what they have provided to the government.

Yahoo spokeswoman Suzanne Philion explained in an e-mail to AP that "these actions stem from a common interest in ensuring that we can provide the most accurate information to the public about the national security requests we receive from the US government."

In the wake of the first NSA disclosures by the agency’s former contractor Edward Snowden, lawmakers in the US and abroad have debated whether or not the secretive surveillance programs, such as Prism, strike the proper balance between privacy and security. 

President Barack Obama and his administration has made numerous claims that those operations exist with significant oversight to prevent any abuses, including constitutional violations, but other documents released by Snowden in the wake of the first disclosures have shown that the NSA has accidentally collected personal correspondence of Americans at least thousands of times annually. 

According to their latest report, the federal government is spending millions to find a way to keep those companies collecting data that invades the privacy of those outside the US. 

According to the latest Snowden leak, released earlier this month, the NSA and its British counterpart have circumvented the encryption methods used to secure emails, chats and essentially most Internet traffic that was previously thought to be protected from prying eyes. 

The price tag for such an endeavour, the Guardian reported, is around a quarter-of-a-billion dollars each year for just the US, and involves not just intricate code-breaking, but maintaining partnerships with the tech companies that provide seemingly secure online communications. 

“The files show that the National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ have broadly compromised the guarantees that Internet companies have given consumers to reassure them that their communications, online banking and medical records would be indecipherable to criminals or governments,” James Ball, Julian Borger and Glenn Greenwald reported.

The director of US national intelligence, James Clapper, has responded by saying the government would simply not be doing its job if it did not use legally dubious techniques to track down communications. 

“Throughout history, nations have used encryption to protect their secrets, and today, terrorists, cyber-criminals, human traffickers and others also use code to hide their activities,” read the statement issued on September 6.

National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters building in Fort Meade, Maryland (Reuters)