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24 May, 2014 03:49

Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Microsoft push back on surveillance gag orders

Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Microsoft push back on surveillance gag orders

A number of large tech companies are pushing back against US government orders that they not disclose the number of data requests made as part of ongoing investigations, according to court documents unsealed on Friday.

The government gag orders are related to US intel requests to turn over information deemed of interest to national security, the details of which became public through leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden beginning last year.

The so-called “national security letters” forbid tech companies from disclosing information regarding the intel requests. The Snowden leaks made waves among a number of Silicon Valley heavyweights upon their publication, as they implied to critics that private customer data was ripe for the taking.

Documents filed in April with the 9th Circuit Court in California now reveal that Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Microsoft have all mounted legal challenges to the government’s gag orders, arguing that they infringe on their First Amendment rights as a form of prior restraint, reports the Washington Post.

According to the newly unsealed legal records, the tech companies are pushing for the privilege to disclose “more detailed aggregate statistics about the volume, scope and type of [national security letters] that the government uses to demand information about their users.”

All of the tech companies in question suffered a public relations headache when the NSA’s data requests became public knowledge, and it now appears that they are moving to disclose a greater scope of information to customers in a bid for transparency.

Posting on its blog on Friday, Microsoft noted the unsealed court information as a “new success in protecting customer rights,” pointing to the company’s challenge of the national security letter to protect its “longstanding policy of notifying enterprise customers if a government requests their data.”

“The government attempts to sidestep the serious First Amendment issues raised in this case by arguing that there is no First Amendment right to disclose information gained from participation in a secret government investigation," the companies said in their court filing. "That is incorrect."

Yahoo has said that it intends to push further against the gag orders. "The U.S. Government should allow Yahoo and other tech companies to disclose more about the volume, scope and type of National Security Letters (NSLs) they receive."

Google echoed the same sentiments to the Post. "We hope the court recognizes how damaging it can be when laws prevent companies from being open about government actions that can infringe on civil liberties.”

Beyond pushing back against non-disclosure of data requests, tech companies have also been responding to further NSA intrusion into their proprietary technology. Microsoft, for example, announced that it will be rolling out expanded encryption across its services, along with reinforced legal protections for customer data.

Along with greater levels of encryption, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo say they are striving to provide better transparency reports to customers. The latest unsealed court documents appear to suggest that Silicon Valley is striving to strike a balance between its cooperation with government requests and the appearance that they are complicit in unfettered data collection.