Internet companies that receive U.S. government requests for information about their customers will be able to disclose more details about surveillance than has been allowed, according to a deal announced today by the Justice Department.
The shift will allow technology and communications companies "to publish the aggregate data ... relating to any orders issued pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)" — and in more ways than had been previously allowed.
While the agreement gives tech companies more options in publishing data about government requests for information, it also includes several limitations. For instance, delays of six months and two years are required for some types of information.
The agreement also specifies the "bands" of numbers the companies can use in reporting "national security processes." For instance, if a company decides to report all actions by individual type, such as National Security Letters or FISA orders, it would have to do so in groups of 1,000. But if the company reports those actions as a batch, it can do so "in bands of 250."
The shift, which was reflected in filings today with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or FISC, is part of President Obama's plan to change how U.S. intelligence agencies gather data, according to a government release announcing the change.
Earlier this month, the president discussed several reforms to the U.S. intelligence apparatus, calling on federal agencies to change how they collect, store and use data about American citizens.
Update at 6:40 p.m. ET: Reaction To The Change
"It is a big deal, but it's only a first step," says staff attorney Nate Cardozo of online privacy advocate the Electronic Frontier Foundation, speaking to our Newscast unit about today's announcement.
He adds, "We were really looking for an agreement where they could disclose the exact number of requests that they'd gotten."
As for what effect the change might have, Cardozo says he thinks people may soon have a better idea of "the scope of the surveillance state in this country."
"All of these requests are made in secret," Cardozo says of U.S. agencies' requests for information, "and none of the targets of the requests will be notified that the government is seeking their data. But we as the American public will start to know more about the number of times that the government comes to the tech companies" looking for citizens' data.
Our original post continues:
Today's move comes weeks after NSA officials said they would welcome a public advocate at the FISA court, as Mark reported for The Two-Way.
Several companies had sought to release more of that information, hoping to reassure their customers they weren't giving U.S. spy agencies broad and unfettered access to their databases and systems — a possibility that arose from the recent revelations about U.S. spy programs included in documents given to the media by former U.S. contractor Edward Snowden.
Papers filed today with the FISC seek to answer several tech companies' requests to publish the aggregate information under a First Amendment right. The companies named in the papers are Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook and LinkedIn.
Here's the full statement from the Justice Department, released on behalf of Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper:
"As indicated in the Justice Department's filing with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the administration is acting to allow more detailed disclosures about the number of national security orders and requests issued to communications providers, the number of customer accounts targeted under those orders and requests, and the underlying legal authorities. Through these new reporting methods, communications providers will be permitted to disclose more information than ever before to their customers.
"This action was directed by the President earlier this month in his speech on intelligence reforms. While this aggregate data was properly classified until today, the office of the Director of National Intelligence, in consultation with other departments and agencies, has determined that the public interest in disclosing this information now outweighs the national security concerns that required its classification.
"Permitting disclosure of this aggregate data addresses an important area of concern to communications providers and the public. But more work remains on other issues. In the weeks ahead, additional steps must be taken in order to fully implement the reforms directed by the President.
"The declassification reflects the Executive Branch's continuing commitment to making information about the Government's intelligence activities publicly available where appropriate and is consistent with ensuring the protection of the national security of the United States."