Following President Obama's promise of NSA reform, major tech companies can now disclose more information about just how much data they give to the government under court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper today announced the change in policy, which will "allow more detailed disclosures about the number of national security orders and requests issued to communications providers, and the number of customer accounts targeted under those orders and requests including the underlying legal authorities."
The PRISM slide that started it all, showing tech companies tasked with delivering data to the NSA. Image: Wikipedia
"Detailed" disclosures doesn't mean complete, however: According to a letter sent from the attorney general's office to counsel for Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, and Yahoo, the companies may release aggregate data on how many consumer data requests they've received, including FISA requests for content, in bands of 1000 if the companies choose to focus on specific types of request, which are outlined in the screenshot below:
Alternately, the companies can report the total number of requests received or the total number of customers targeted in bands of 250. Either way, a measure of opacity will remain in any future disclosures, which officials say is important for maintaining security.
Still, it's a win for the tech giants, which have been steadily pushing back against bulk data collection in the wake of the PRISM revelations last year. In an open letter last month, eight of the major players in Silicon Valley implored the government to reform surveillance practices and allow them to disclose what data, and how much, was being requested by government officials.
It's also the first concrete step taken in the wake of Obama's NSA speech two weeks ago, in which he said he'd increase disclosure and oversight of government surveillance activities. While we won't know the full utility—if any—of the newly-allowed disclosures until tech companies start releasing them, the change is at least a sign that the enormous blowback to the NSA is having an effect.