FISA Data Release by Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft Means Squat

Google, Yahoo, and other tech firms are offering some updated statistics about government requests for data.

There’s just one problem: under revised guidelines issued by the federal government, those companies can still only report a range, rather than a definitive number, for those requests. If that wasn’t fuzzy enough, the range can only be reported after a six-month lag.

“Until now, the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) opposed our efforts to publish statistics specifically about Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests,” reads a Feb. 3 note on Google’s official blog. Last year, Google and other tech firms filed a lawsuit asking the FISA court to cough up more data about information requests. “Today, for the first time, our report on government requests for user information encompasses all of the requests we receive, subject only to delays imposed by the DoJ regarding how quickly we can include certain requests in our statistics.”

Between January and June 2013, Google received between 0-999 FISA “non-content” requests on 0-999 user accounts; it also fielded between 0-999 “content” requests for between 9000 and 9999 user accounts:

Yahoo actually received a larger number of FISA queries than Google: for the first six months of 2013, the federal government made between 0-999 requests on between 30,000 and 30,999 user accounts hosted by the company:

“As always, Yahoo will continue to protect the privacy of our users and to ensure our ability to defend it,” the company wrote in accompanying blog post. “This includes advocating strenuously for meaningful reform around government surveillance, demanding that government requests be made through lawful means and for lawful purposes, and fighting government requests that we deem unclear, improper, overbroad, or unlawful.”

Despite hosting vast amounts of user data in its datacenters, Facebook apparently received fewer requests than either Yahoo or Google for information:

“We plan to update this data every six months, consistent with the authorization provided by the government,” Facebook added in its own posting. “These reports will reflect a six-month waiting period from the end of a reporting period, again as mandated by the government.”

Microsoft received less than 1,000 FISA orders for user data, related to between 15,000 and 15,999 accounts—placing it somewhere between Yahoo and Google on the information-request scale. “While our customers number hundreds of millions, the accounts affected by these orders barely reach into the tens of thousands,” read the accompanying blog posting. “In short, this means that we have not received the type of bulk data requests that are commonly discussed publicly regarding telephone records.”

Here’s Microsoft’s breakdown:

These companies have little choice but to advocate this new information release as a huge step forward for transparency. Unfortunately, restricting government data requests to a broad range isn’t very helpful: for example, a range (rather than a single numerical value) makes it difficult to determine trends, such as whether government requests are gradually increasing over the long term. The new revelations are a start, but privacy advocates would probably argue they don’t go nearly far enough.

 

Images: Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft

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