In a letter posted to Google's company blog Tuesday afternoon and addressed to the attorney general and the FBI director hours earlier, the head lawyer for the world's leading information crawler has asked the U.S. government for permission to publish the number of top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requests it receives from the nation's spy agencies and beyond each year. After nearly a week of startling disclosures — including that Google was one of at least nine massive tech companies participating, willfully or not, in the National Security Agency's so-called PRISM program to data-mine Americans' Internet activity — it represented a shot across the bow from Silicon Valley, or at least a PR attempt to soften the blow.
The NSA is finding and storing information about U.S. and foreign nationals, that much we know. But the extent of their demands, and the exact process involved with mining data from Internet companies, remains a mystery. In 2008, Congress approved amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act 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 moved on Tuesday for disclosure there, too.
And now Google, after all-too-similar statements to Facebook and the rest of the nine companies giving up info in the leaked PRISM initiative, is asking the heads of the judiciary and another top intelligence agency if they can publicly disclose to the world how many FISA requests they receive each year. From the letter, signed by Google's David Drummond:
We therefore ask you to help make it possible for Google to publish in our Transparency Report aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures—in terms of both the number we receive and their scope. Google’s numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made. Google has nothing to hide.
To be sure, it's been a whirlwind five days for the companies inside PRISM, and their reflection outside of it. Google is clearly worried they're being misrepresented in the media. Leaker Edward Snowden told the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald the NSA has unfettered access to the servers of companies forced to comply with the PRISM program — Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple. But Google has steadfastly denied cooperating with the NSA outside of what they're absolutely forced to under the law.
The FISA requests don't already show up in Google's regular transparency reports because they are top secret, according to the law. So now Google wants to tell the world exactly how much they cooperate with the U.S. government. Of the publicly available government data requests to Google, the numbers have been increasing:
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To be sure, if Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller were to grant the request — again, it's a long shot, considering the government has been defending its spy programs even more aggressively than tech companies have been denying and explaining their participation — still only a fraction of the requests would be disclosed. Google's lawyer said the company was asking to come clean about an aggregate number, not the information inside the requests themselves. "Google's numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made," his letter reads. "Google has nothing to hide."