Challenging a gag order placed on it by the National Security Agency (NSA) about sharing the details of its Prism program, Google took its case to court. Seeking to use its First Amendment rights to reveal the number and scope of accounts requested from the search engine by the NSA, the company presented its case against surveillance secrecy in a (not surprisingly) closed court, the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Reasons for Google to challenge surveillance secrecy
In its court filing Google noted that its freedom of speech rights should enable the company to share information about the government’s requests. It wants to do so to dispel untruths and distortions created by media reporting. According to CNN, Google said, “Google’s reputation and business have been harmed by the false or misleading reports in the media….Google must respond to such claims with more than generalities.”
The company is most worried about the misconception by Google users that the government has unlimited discretionary freedom to spy on its customers. There has also been the suggestion that the government taps directly into Google’s servers, which the company denies. It feels as if the company can explain Google’s part in the program more fully, it will help assure Google users that their privacy is being protected by the company.
Government allows for aggregate numbers…
According to CNN, recently the government has eased restrictions that allow companies within the Prism program to reveal the number of surveillance requests “in aggregate,” along with other data requested by law enforcement agencies at the local, state and federal level.
Several companies, including Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo took advantage of this opportunity sharing these figures with the public. The numbers shared ranged from 5,000 (Apple) to 13,000 (Yahoo). However, as Time magazine noted, critics have argued that this is a “shell game” scam and provides no real information to users.
…but Google says “no thanks”
Google noted that it already shares that information in a “transparency report,” but wants to break out the number of national security requests separately.
Noting a Google statement, CNN reported a spokesperson for the company suggested that “Lumping national security requests together with criminal requests would be a step backward for Google and our users.” Specifically, with its lawsuit, the company hopes to be able to reveal the number of user accounts tapped by the NSA.
Currently, the technology giant is prohibited from sharing the number of NSA requests, including Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) disclosures, or the scope of the information shared by Google, according to Time magazine.
As the company points out, it cannot even acknowledge that it receives FISA requests (although that is now obvious).