WASHINGTON – Freed by a recent legal deal with government lawyers, major technology firms released new data Monday on how often they are ordered to turn over customer information for secret national security investigations – figures that show that the government collected data on thousands of Americans.
The publications disclosed by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, LinkedIn and Tumblr provided expanded details and some vented criticism about the government’s handling of customers’ Internet data in counter-terrorism and other intelligence-related probes. The figures from 2012 and 2013 showed that companies, such as Google and Microsoft, were compelled by the government to provide information on as many as 10,000 customer accounts in a six-month period. Yahoo complied with government requests for information on more than 40,000 accounts in the same period.
The companies earlier provided limited information about government requests for data, but a new agreement reached last week with the Obama administration allowed the firms to provide a broadened, though still circumscribed, set of figures to the public.
Seeking to reassure customers and business partners alarmed by revelations about the government’s massive collection of Internet and computer data, the firms stressed details indicating that only small numbers of their customers were targeted by authorities. Still, even those small numbers showed that thousands of Americans were affected by the government requests approved by judges of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
In a company blog post, Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith scolded the U.S. and allied governments for failing to renounce the reported mass interception of Internet data carried by communications cables. “Despite the president’s reform efforts and our ability to publish more information, there has not yet been any public commitment by either the U.S. or other governments to renounce the attempted hacking of Internet companies,” Smith said.
The new figures were released just a week after major tech firms announced a legal agreement with the Justice Department. But lawyers and executives for the companies openly vented their discomfort with the government’s continuing insistence that they could only provide broad ranges instead of the actual numbers of government requests.
The companies can only reveal how many total requests they receive every six months, with the numbers in groupings of 1,000. And even those general numbers must be concealed for at least six months after any reporting period ends. That restriction means the FISA requests for the final half of last year can’t be shared until July, at the earliest.
The data coming out Monday indicated the U.S. government is digging deeper into the Internet as people spend more time online.
Most of the companies showed the number of government requests fell between 0 and 999 for each six-month period. But the numbers of customers affected by those searches ranged more widely.
Google, for instance, has seen the number of people affected by FISA court orders rise from 2,000 to 2,999 users during the first half of 2009 to between 9,000 and 9,999 users during the first half of last year. The company showed an unusual spike in the number of Americans whose data was collected between July and December 2012. During that period, metadata was collected from between 12,000 and 12,999 users. Under the restrictions imposed by the government, no explanation was provided for that anomaly.
Yahoo listed the highest number of people swept up in FISA requests for online content during the first half of last year. The orders seeking user content spanned 30,000 to 30,999 accounts, according to the company. The requested content could have included emails, instant messages, address books, calendar items and pictures.
All the companies also received FISA requests that weren’t aimed at scooping up online communications or photos. Those demands sought things such as billing information and locations of where people made an Internet connection.