Google's Fight for NSA Transparency, Explained in 2 Paragraphs

Brian Fung

Google has formally filed a motion to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court asking for permission to say how many warrants it receives for user data every year. From the document itself:

In particular, Google seeks a declaratory judgment that Google has a right under the First Amendment to publish, and that no applicable law or regulation prohibits Google from publishing, two aggregate unclassified numbers: (1) the total number of FISA requests it receives, if any; and (2) the total number of users or accounts encompassed within such requests.


Google's publication would disclose numbers as part of the regular Transparency Report publication cycle for National Security Letters, which covers data over calendar year time periods. There would be two new categories to cover requests made under FISA … (a) total requests received and (b) total users/accounts at issue. Each of these entries will be reported as a range, rather than an actual number. That range would be the same as used by Google in its reporting of NSLs currently, in increments of one thousand, starting with zero. As with the NSL reporting, Google would have a Frequently Asked Questions ("FAQ") section that would describe the statutory FISA authorities themselves.

Google's existing transparency report is publicly accessible here. As you can see, Google already publishes information about national security letters, a different type of data request that doesn't require FISA court approval.

In previous petitions to the government, Google has asked for the ability to report the total number of all national security-related requests it gets from Washington. That means a numeric range that would represent both NSLs and FISA requests, with no differentiation or breakdown between the two. This is different—the company is now asking for permission to report FISA warrants as a separate line item, which would be revealing in its own right.

I wouldn't be surprised to see other tech companies following up with petitions of their own.