Facebook became the first tech company implicated in the PRISM scandal to release a complete view of data requests received from U.S. authorities — secret PRISM requests and all — but Google and Twitter were quick to voice their displeasure with Facebook's apparent privacy triumph. Friday evening, Facebook general counsel Ted Ullyot announced the company received between 9,000 and 10,000 requests for data from between 18,000 and 19,000 accounts from U.S. authorities within the last six months of 2012. Facebook became the first tech giant to release government data request information that includes requests made under the Foreign Intelligence Services Act.
In 2008, Congress approved amendments to FISA allowing, among other things, the government to conduct warrantless wiretaps of electronic communications, contingent upon judicial approval. Several subsequent votes have extended those powers, and President Obama and his administration defended the oversight by secret courts, even as some members of the Senate and most of the major tech companies have lobbied for disclosure there, too. Google, Facebook and Microsoft, along with six other Silicon Valley giants, were implicated as participants in the PRISM surveillance program by government contractor Edward Snowden in his initial leaks to the Guardian.
But Facebook was only able to disclose the FISA-related data under certain conditions. Namely, that they didn't disclose the number of requests authorized under FISA. There's no differentiating between requests from civil, state and federal authorities. It's all jumbled into one number. "Facebook said it was able to report all US national security-related requests, which no company had previously been allowed to do, after pressing the government to release more details about the program," the AFP explains. "But, for now, it said the government would only allow Facebook to provide the numbers in aggregate form and as a range." The company also didn't disclose how often they comply with the requests.
And it's in those margins that Google and Twitter focused their criticism. "We have always believed that it’s important to differentiate between different types of government requests," Google's statement reads. Google already releases detailed transparency reports, and national security-related requests have been on the rise. "We already publish criminal requests separately from National Security Letters. Lumping the two categories together would be a step back for users. Our request to the government is clear: to be able to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures, separately," the company added. "We agree with Google: It's important to be able to publish numbers of national security requests — including FISA disclosures —separately," said Twitter legal director Ben Lee.
Facebook's ability to lobby lawmakers and earn the right to disclose FISA requests is certainly a win for the relatively young company, but Google and Twitter are right — not explaining the different requests Facebook received does nothing for transparency. Jumbling three levels of government requests into one large number isn't useful at all. By not detailing the number of FISA requests, or the number of requests Facebook complied with, we don't know anything more about Facebook's cooperation this morning than we did before the numbers were released.