Tech giant Google has asked the U.S. Department of Justice for permission to publish the number of national-security information requests it receives from the government, including requests made under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), one of the laws at the heart of recent blockbuster disclosures about government data collection.
Even before the recent government-snooping controversy erupted, civil-liberties advocates had asked the company to disclose FISA requests in the interest of transparency. But Google has a self-serving reason to do so as well: the tech giant wants to prove that it doesn’t give the government “unfettered access” to the vast trove of data it collects from its users.
Google has come under scrutiny following recent reports that the National Security Agency (NSA) uses a secret surveillance program, called PRISM, to examine data – including e-mails, videos and online chats — that it collects from the tech giant and other big Internet companies. But Google is currently prohibited from revealing anything about the requests it receives for such information, because FISA requests — the method by which the government asks for the data — are classified top secret, and Google is barred from discussing them.
In a letter sent to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller, Google’s chief legal officer David Drummond asked to be allowed “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.” The letter, published on Google’s blog, is noteworthy in itself, because it is the first time Google has even acknowledged that it receives national-security FISA requests.
Google’s letter to the government is part of the company’s campaign to push back against media reports that it provides the government unfettered or “direct access” to the company’s servers, or to data it keeps on the activities of its users. In a blog post last Friday, Drummond and Google CEO Larry Page denied giving the government such access and said that the company had never even heard of the PRISM program. It’s important to note that Google is not requesting permission to publish the content of FISA requests, only the number and scope of the requests it receives.