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Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Yahoo release US surveillance requests

4/02/2014 by


Tens of thousands of accounts associated with customers of Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Yahoo have their data turned over to US government authorities every six months as the result of secret court orders, the tech giants disclosed for the first time on Monday.

As part of a transparency deal reached last week with the Justice Department, four of the tech firms that participate in the National Security Agency’s Prism effort, which collects largely overseas internet communications, released more information about the volume of data the US demands they provide than they have ever previously been permitted to disclose.

But the terms of the deal prevent the companies from itemising the collection, beyond bands of thousands of data requests served on them by a secret surveillance court. The companies must also delay by six months disclosing information on the most recent requests – terms the Justice Department negotiated to end a transparency lawsuit before the so-called Fisa court that was brought by the companies.

In announcing the updated data figures, the companies appeared concerned by the lack of precision over the depth of their compelled participation in government surveillance.

“We still believe more transparency is needed so everyone can better understand how surveillance laws work and decide whether or not they serve the public interest,” said Google’s legal director for law enforcement and information security, Richard Salgado, in a post on the company’s official blog.

“Specifically, we want to disclose the precise numbers and types of requests we receive, as well as the number of users they affect in a timely way.”

In the most recent period for which data is available, January to June 2013 – a period ended by the beginning of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s landmark surveillance disclosures – Google gave the government the internet metadata of up to 999 customer accounts, and the content of communications from between 9,000 and 9,999 customers.

Microsoft received fewer than 1,000 orders from the Fisa court for communications content during the same period, related to between 15,000 and 15,999 “accounts or individual identifiers”.

The company, which owns the internet video calling service Skype, also disclosed that it received fewer than 1,000 orders for metadata – which reveals communications patterns rather than individual message content – related to fewer than 1,000 accounts or identifiers.

Yahoo disclosed that it gave the government communications content from between 30,000 and 30,999 accounts over the first six months of 2013, and fewer than 1,000 customer accounts that were subject to Fisa court orders for metadata.

Facebook disclosed that during the first half of 2013, it turned over content data from between 5000 and 5999 accounts – a rise of about 1000 from the previous six month period – and customer metadata associated with up to 999 accounts.

Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo also gave the FBI certain customer records – not content – under a type of non-judicial subpoena called a national security letter. Since disclosure of national security letters is not subject to a six-month delay under last week’s deal, Microsoft revealed that it received up to 999 such subpoenas between June and December 2013, affecting up to 999 user accounts. Facebook’s National Security Letter total was the same.

Yahoo received up to 999 national security letters during the same period, affecting 1,000 to 1,999 accounts. Google received the same total, and disclosed that since 2009, national security letters have compelled the handover of customer records from as many as 1999 accounts every six months. Last week Apple disclosed that between 1 January and 30 June 2013 it had received less than 250 national security orders – including national security letters and other requests – relating to less than 250 accounts.

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