Yahoo And Facebook Chase US Surveillance Freedom As Google Demands Transparency

Facebook and Yahoo have petitioned the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) for permission to reveal how many personal data requests are made by the government, joining Google and Microsoft in taking a stand against secret snooping. The new suits, which join an amended Google transparency petition the search engine filed today, see Facebook and Yahoo voice concerns that they are unable to give any greater detail on what user information is disclosed in the name of national security than the raw overall numbers.

"The numbers we shared within our transparency report for the United States include all types of government data requests," Yahoo's Ron Bell, general counsel, wrote today, "such as criminal law enforcement requests and those under U.S. national security authorities, including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and National Security Letters (NSLs), if any were received."

The complaint echoes similar concerns that Google and Microsoft voiced earlier this year, after the news of the PRISM program broke following revelations by whistle-blower Edward Snowden. According to Yahoo's Bell, "withholding such information breeds mistrust and suspicion—both of the United States and of companies that must comply with government legal directives."

However, despite Microsoft and Google's efforts at negotiation with the government over the past months, so far it has proved unwilling to soften its stance. In fact, the two companies recently admitted that legal action was the only route they envisaged having any result.

The US government has grown a little more open, with agreements to release aggregate annual data on data mining like phone logs and internet communications. However, it's generally agreed that those moves are insufficient.

"The actions and statements of the U.S. government have not adequately addressed the concerns of people around the world about whether their information is safe and secure with Internet companies" Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch wrote today.

Among the more damning allegations out of the PRISM revelations was the suggestion that the NSA paid Google, Facebook, and others for their participation in the scheme.

"Although we have been permitted to disclose a range of the total number of requests we have received and the number of users associated with those requests, we have not been permitted to specify even approximately how many of those requests may be national security-related, nor have we been permitted to provide information identifying the number of those requests that seek the content of users' accounts" Colin Stretch, general counsel, Facebook

As for Google's amended suit [pdf link], the company is now demanding that the court heading be held openly, rather than behind closed doors.

"It's time for more transparency" Richard Salgado, Director of Law Enforcement & Information Security and Pablo Chavez, Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs at Google write. Google was one of a number of companies and organizations invited to President Obama's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, where it plans to argue 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."

"Participants discussed recommendations about how to respect the Intelligence Community's commitment to privacy and civil liberties and maintain the public trust" the NSA wrote on its IC on the Record blog about the meeting.

Meanwhile, in a separate meeting, the NSA "discussed the foreign policy implications, including economic implications, of U.S. policy concerning intelligence and communications technology" with a number of unnamed "information technology companies and experts."