Silicon Valley companies call for greater transparency in PRISM program

Google demonstrates their Chromebook Pixel laptop computer during CES on the Hill on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on April 16, 2013.

Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Facebook have all issued statements or letters to the Justice Department asking for more transparency regarding orders for data they receive under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Why now? They may well have made such requests before. But, “we’d never know it,” says Ginger McCall with the Electronic Privacy Information Center. 

We wouldn’t know because these companies can’t tell us if they’ve gotten requests under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or not, let alone whether they have fought them. So one reason they’re asking for more transparency is so they can defend themselves.

“They’re trying to convince us to trust them with our data and at the same time they have been betraying that trust to the government,” says Bruce Schneier, author of "Liars and Outliers." “They’re in danger of losing a lot of respect they have from their users.”

But Google and Microsoft at least have a history of being, as Microsoft has said, as transparent “as we legally could.”     

“Google has already done a lot to foster more transparency when it comes to national security requests by being the first to negotiate with the Justice Department to publish statistics about how many secret national security letters they get,” says Kevin Bankston, director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology. 

National security letters are different from orders under the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act. NSLs are more like subpoenas, and companies are permitted to publish aggregate data about them -- partly as a result of negotiation by Google and other companies. Microsoft has similar transparency reports, and Twitter has routinely fought subpoenas for data. Facebook does not publish transparency reports.  

Whether the current efforts will push the Justice Department towards more transparency depends, says Michelle Richardson with the ACLU. “I think it’s left to be seen how much capital they’re willing to spend on this issue," she says.

It will also depend on how much people care. “If theres no corporate pressure, and we forget about it, then the story is likely to die,” says Schneier.    

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.

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