Some of the world’s biggest technology firms including Apple and Google have won the battle to disclose more information on the number of user data requests they receive from the US government.
The US government has caved in to pressure from the technology giants, who have been trying to distance themselves from involvement in the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance operation, after leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The companies, which include the likes of Microsoft, Facebook, LinkedIn and Yahoo, had filed motions to the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), asking for permission to publish details of national security requests they receive from the US government for user data.
But in October, in a FISC filing, the US Department of Justice claimed that the information that the companies seek to disclose is “classified” and could cause harm to national security.
But the companies then made their case to US president Barack Obama, and senior US officials, claiming that their reputations were at risk, and profits – particularly from international business – could suffer as a consequence.
The agreement means that the companies are allowed to publish the aggregate numbers of orders under the NSA’s Prism programme, as well as the number of national security letters they have received for ongoing investigations.
The firms have already taken it upon themselves to release transparency reports, detailing how many requests for data the US government has made. But they were prohibited from revealing any information about the NSA links because the information is detailed in Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) orders.
The five companies said in a joint statement: “We filed our lawsuits because we believe that the public has a right to know about the volume and types of national security requests we receive. We’re pleased the Department of Justice has agreed that we and other providers can disclose this information.”
Attorney General Eric Holder and director of national intelligence James Clapper said that by “permitting discloses of this aggregate data, it addresses an important area of concern to communications providers and the public”.
Despite the companies being able to publish the aggregate data, they will not be able to say exactly how many requests they have received, but instead just a range, so one firm could say it has received between 250 and 499 national security orders, for example.